"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/15/12

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Top 10 Grammatical Errors Common to Americans and Nigerians

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

It’s trite knowledge that grammatical errors in English—and, for that matter, all languages— are not the preserve of non-native speakers of the language; native speakers, too, routinely violate the standard usage norms of their own language. Although it is generally true that native and non-native speakers are apt to make different kinds of errors, I have been struck by the many similarities I’ve noticed in the errors of usage among certain categories of American and Nigerian users of the English language. Find the 10 most prominent examples below:

1. Errors of double comparatives and superlatives. Most adjectives and adverbs can be classified into their base, comparative, and superlative forms. Examples: nice, nicer, nicest; good, better, best; bad, worse worst; interesting, more interesting, most interesting; beautifully, more beautifully, most beautifully. The general rule is that adjectives with one or two syllables are modified by the suffix “er” when they are expressed in a comparative degree and by the suffix "est" when they are in the superlative form. Adjectives with three or more syllables are modified by the word “more” when they are in the comparative degree and by “most” when they are in the superlative degree. There are a few irregular adjectives such as “good,” "well," “bad,” etc. that defy this rule.

Well, the error of double comparatives occurs when you simultaneously add the suffix “er” and “more” to modify the same adjective, such as “he is MORE NICER than his brother.” The error of double superlatives occurs when you concurrently use the suffix “est” and “most” to modify the same adjective, such as “Nigerians and Americans are the MOST HAPPIEST people.”

In modern Standard English, double comparatives and superlatives are a grammatical taboo. But it’s one error that unites nonstandard American and Nigerian speakers of the English language. Although all American English grammar books identify double comparatives and superlatives as usage errors, I see them in many of my students’ papers, and occasionally among the educated class.

According to many authorities (see, for instance, The Origins and Development of the English Language published in 1982 by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo) up until the early 15th century, double comparatives and superlatives were perfectly standard. The most famous double superlative from that era is Shakespeare’s use of the expression “most unkindest cut of all” in Julius Caesar.  Kenneth G. Wilson, in his book The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), notes that “Shakespeare…and other Renaissance writers used double comparison to add vigor, enthusiasm, and emphasis, and so do young children and other unwary speakers of Nonstandard English today.”

Interestingly, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (4th ed., 2000), in pre-Shakespearean times the suffixes “er” and “est” were the only lexical items used to indicate the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs, irrespective of word length. "More" and "most" never existed. So, for example, the comparative and superlative forms of the word “beautiful” would be rendered as “beautifuller” and “beautifullest.” It’s interesting how the rules of language use mutate over time.

2. “Revert back”/“return back.” Revert and return both mean to “go back.” So grammar books in both Britain and America teach that the expressions “revert back” and “return back” are superfluous and redundant and therefore wrong. Yet these expressions are common in Nigerian and American English. Well, I guess it’s because the rules are not consistent. For instance, “close proximity” is clearly in the class of “revert back” and “return back.” But the expression is not only considered correct (the Oxford Dictionary of English, for instance, uses the sentence “do not operate microphones in close proximity to television sets” in its example of how to use the word “proximity”), it also enjoys idiomatic status, although some writers feebly object to it. There are many such redundant fixed phrases in English—such as “aid and abet,” “part and parcel,” “any and all,” “one and all”— which are strangely not socially disfavored.

3. “Comprises of.
” Comprise means “composed of,” or “consist of,” so the “of” after “comprise” is pointless. It is correct to say “Nigeria comprises 36 states,” but not “Nigeria comprises of 36 states.” There is an exception to this rule, though. In a passive construction, “comprise” can take the preposition “of.” Example: “Nigeria is comprised of 36 states.” Confused? Well, just remember that if there is a “d” at the end of “comprise” (as in: “comprised”) you can use “of,” but if there is an “s” (as in: “comprises”) you cannot use “of.” Many American and Nigerian speakers of the English language habitually flout this rule.

4. Disappearance of adverbs of manner. In everyday American English, adverbs of manner, that is, the adverbs that usually end with “ly,” such as “nicely,” “badly,” etc., are disappearing. So, ungrammatical expressions like “It hurts so bad” (instead of “It hurts so badly”), “He does it real good" (instead of “He does it really well”) are common. This hitherto uniquely American error has somehow found its way into Nigerian English through what I like to call American pop-culture-induced linguistic osmosis.

5. Misuse of “alumni.” In its nonstandard uses in both America and Nigeria, “alumni” is an all-purpose term for a person who has graduated from a school (high school, college, university, institute, etc). But “alumni” is the plural form of alumnus (for males) and alumna (for females). These days, in order to avoid the confusion, people just say or write “alum.”

6. Subject-verb discordance. In Standard English, singular verbs must agree with singular subjects. Many English speakers in Nigeria subvert this rule. That’s why expressions like “he don’t like me” (instead of “he DOESN’T like me”), “he think he is smart” (instead of “he THINKS he is smart”), etc. are commonplace in the English of people who occupy the lower end of the social scale in Nigeria. I was surprised to find similar errors here, especially among black Americans. I later learned that subject-verb discordance is perfectly acceptable in Ebonics, as black American vernacular English is now called by its speakers.

7. Confusion of “few” and “less.” The Associate Press Stylebook—and other grammar and style books—teach that we should use “fewer” for individual items and “less” for bulk or quantity. Many American and Nigerian speakers of English don’t obey this rule. American students, in addition, confuse “amount” with “number” all the time. They write statements like “there was a huge amount of people at the party.” But in Standard English “amount” is used for uncountable nouns and “number” for countable nouns. I have never heard any Nigerian say “amount of people.”

8. “More superior than.” In Standard English, “more,” “superior,” and “than” don’t appear in the same sentence. Superior is a superlative adjective that does not admit of degrees.  So instead of saying “he thinks he is more superior than me,” say “he thinks he is superior to me.” I learned this rule in my junior high school and never expected to hear a native speaker violate it. The first time I saw that expression in an American student’s paper, I thought for a moment that I was in Nigeria—until my surroundings reminded me of where I was. I have since encountered this error countless times here.

9. “More preferable than.” It is the same rule as above. In Standard English, “more” and “preferable” and “than” don’t mix. The correct expression is “preferable to” (as in: “Toyota cars are preferable to Honda cars”).  

10. “On tomorrow.” The preposition “on” is prefixed only to specific days of the week such as Monday, Tuesday, Friday, etc. but never to indefinite references to days like “tomorrow,” “yesterday” or “today.” In Nigeria, only children and barely educated people say “on tomorrow.” But it’s common to hear American college students say “on tomorrow.”

Related Articles:
The Politics of Grammar Column (over 50 articles on Nigerian, American and British English)

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