By Farooq A.Kperogi, Ph.D.
English grammar columnists in Nigerian newspapers do a great job of pointing out usage errors in news reports, editorials, and opinion articles, but they have also perpetrated a whole host of myths and superstitions about English usage. This happens, I think, because most of the grammar columnists rely entirely on old, limited dictionaries and narrow, discredited, prescriptivist grammar rulebooks. Still others, for obvious reasons, have no familiarity with the native-speaker pragmatics (that is, actual use) of the words and expressions they write about. I identify a few of them below:
1. “An Illiterate/ illiterates.” Several grammar columnists have said “illiterate” is invariably an adjective and can’t be used as a noun. So they say expressions like “he is an illiterate” and “they are illiterates” are, er, illiterate, since only nouns, not adjectives, can be pluralized and preceded by articles. They insist, therefore, that “he is an illiterate” should be reworded to “he is illiterate” and that “they are illiterates” should be changed to “they are illiterate.”
Well, “Illiterate” is both an adjective and a noun. Every modern dictionary acknowledges this. It is true, though, that the use of “illiterate” as a noun isn’t in as much popular use as the use of the word as an adjective. But it isn’t, as Nigerian grammar columnists often claim, a uniquely Nigerian usage. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the use of “illiterate” as a noun to mean “illiterate person” has been attested since the 1620s.
2. “Make the rounds.” Most grammar columnists in Nigeria have incorrectly identified this expression as a Nigerian English solecism. They say the correct expression is “do the rounds.” So they discourage Nigerians from saying something like, “Rumors of Professor Jega’s removal as INEC chairman are making the rounds.” They insist the only correct way to say it is, “Rumors of Professor Jega’s removal as INEC chairman are doing the rounds.” Even some scholars of Nigerian English have given scholarly imprimatur to this usage superstition. A recent scholarly article by a Nigerian university teacher had this to say: “The formal idiom is ‘to go the rounds’, meaning to be passed from person to person or place-to-place. ‘Making the rounds’ is a typical Nigerian deviation.”
“Make the rounds” isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a “typical Nigerian deviation.” It is perfectly idiomatic English, and appears in native English varieties. It is a variant of “do the rounds.” While the majority of British English speakers prefer “do the rounds,” American English speakers prefer “make the rounds.” For some reason, everyday Nigerian English speakers have adopted the American version of the expression. But several corpora show that “make the rounds” also occurs in British English.
3. “Retirees.” I have read countless Nigerian newspaper grammar columns—and “scholarly” articles— dismissing this word as a Nigerian English invention. That’s entirely erroneous. “Retiree” is an Americanism, which the Random House Dictionary says first appeared in American English between 1940 and 1945. But several corpora, such as the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, show that “retiree” now enjoys wide currency in all varieties of English. A search through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for instance, showed that British English speakers are the second highest users of the word after American English users. So “retiree” is a legitimate synonym for “a retired person.”
4. Invitees. In spite of what Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists—and Nigerian English scholars— have written, this isn’t a uniquely Nigerian English word, either. Because it appears more frequently in American English than in any other variety of English, it probably also started life as an Americanism, but etymology dictionaries say the word has been around since 1837, that is, years before Nigeria formally became a British colony. The word means a guest or, as some people like to say, an “invited guest.” My search shows that although the word is chiefly American, it also appears frequently in respectable British English usage. A recent usage of the word in the (London) Guardian, one of the UK’s most prestigious newspapers, goes thus: “Tuesday's gathering is yet another tribute to a Queen celebrating a momentous anniversary. One invitee who is believed to have declined due to prior commitments is Cherie Blair, the former prime minister's wife.”
5. “Tight friends.” Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists love to say “tight friends” is a peculiarly Nigerian English expression that should be discarded in favor of “close friends.” Well, “tight friends” isn’t an exclusively Nigerian English expression, nor is it “wrong.” It regularly occurs in informal American and Canadian English, although it’s almost entirely absent in British English. A recent article in the Calgary Herald, a prominent Canadian newspaper, goes thus: “Morrison and Goodwin are tight friends; their friendship pre-dates Once Upon a Time by several years.”
This expression has been so maligned in Nigeria that I still involuntarily cringe when my American students say someone is their “tight friend,” or that they have a “tight friendship” with someone.
6. “Point accusing fingers at.” The notion that “point accusing fingers” is defective English phraseology invented by sloppy Nigerians is probably the most vexing superstition that Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists have popularized in Nigeria. Although “point the finger at someone” is the usual rendering of the expression in dictionaries, “point an accusing finger at someone” is an acceptable variant of the expression in all varieties of English. All the corpora I consulted showed the occurrence of this expression in all varieties of English.
Since Nigerian English consciously, if unsuccessfully, mimics British English, I will give a few examples of the use of “point accusing fingers” in respectable British newspapers and websites. So here goes: “All the countries pointing accusing fingers are more guilty than Iran in breaching the NPT…”— the Guardian, February 4, 2007. “Airbus and Air France, both with much to lose, were soon pointing accusing fingers at each other.”—the Telegraph, April 28, 2012. “The danger therefore if it flops is that he will be personally identified with that failure and Tory MPs will point accusing fingers towards him for not focusing on a more clear cut, traditional Conservative message.”—BBC News, February 14, 2011.
7. “Join the bandwagon.” As I wrote in a previous column, contrary to what Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists have said and continue to say, “join the bandwagon” isn’t exclusively Nigerian English, nor is it a distortion. It’s merely a less frequent variant of the initially American English expression “jump on the bandwagon.” The Macmillan Dictionary, for instance, recognizes “join the bandwagon” as a variant of “jump on the bandwagon.” Another variant the dictionary identifies is “climb on the bandwagon.
A May 17, 2012 article in the British Times Higher Education used “join the bandwagon” instead of “jump on the bandwagon” in the following sentence: “Having Europe join the bandwagon is likely to please David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who in a speech at the Publishers Association earlier this month acknowledged that the UK could lose out financially if it were alone in promoting open access.” I found several other examples of the use of “join the bandwagon” in all varieties of English.
Interestingly, when the expression first appeared in American English in the late 1800s, it was rendered as “get aboard the band wagon,” as attested in an 1899 letter by President Theodore Roosevelt, where he wrote: “When I once became sure of one majority they rumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.” It means to be a part of something because it is popular.
To be concluded next week