By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Most of the material in this week’s column was initially published on May 1, 2011. It is still relevant today, particularly because several people keep sending me questions that are already answered in the article. I have updated the article and added a few more examples.
1. “Casted votes.” In 2011, I listened to Channel TV’s live stream of the governorship elections and heard educated Nigerian pundits talking about votes that had been “casted.” Similarly, in an April 16, 2011 story titled, “Jonathan votes in presidential election,” Vanguard wrote: “Goodluck Jonathan has CASTED his vote in today’s presidential election at his Otuoke ward in Bayelsa.” Similarly, during the live broadcast of the announcement of the results of the last presidential elections, several of INEC’s returning officers, who are professors, repeatedly talked of the “total number of votes CASTED.”
Cast is an irregular verb that doesn’t change form to reflect the change of tense. Its base form is “cast,” its past tense is “cast,” and its past participle is still “cast.” It shares the same pattern as “put” (who says “putted”?), “let,” “cut,” “hurt,” etc. So “casted” is wrong for the same reason that “putted,” “letted,” “cutted,” “hurted,” etc. are wrong. The error arises, I think, from the fact that “broadcast,” another irregular verb, can correctly be rendered as “broadcasted,” although the Associated Press Stylebook frowns at the use of “broadcasted” as a past tense of “broadcast.” I take off points from my students’ essays if they write “broadcasted” because we use the Associated Press Stylebook as our guide. Nevertheless, the use of “broadcasted” as the past tense of “broadcast” enjoys widespread acceptance. In other words, while “broadcasted” is an acceptable alternative for “broadcast,” “cast” remains “cast” irrespective of its tense.
2. “Guber race,” “Guber polls,” “Guber candidates,” etc. Nigerian newspaper headline writers invented the word “guber” as the short form of “gubernatorial,” a chiefly American English term that means “related to a governor.” Unfortunately, the word has gone from headlinese (i.e., the peculiar English of newspaper headlines) to everyday speech in Nigeria. But even Americans who use the word “gubernatorial” in their political lexicon don’t have a short form for it. That leaves Nigerians as the only people in the English-speaking world who use “guber” as a stand-in for “gubernatorial.”
This wouldn’t have been a problem except that in American English “guber” is an informal word for facial pimple. It’s also jocular medical slang for tumor.
From my point of view, “guber” is needless linguistic ghettoization. The word was invented not by popular or even elite Nigerian linguistic creativity (because no occasion calls for it) but by newspaper copy editors desirous of shortening the word “gubernatorial” in order to fit headline space. I know how that works because I was once a news editor. “Guber” was first used by ThisDay, which has become something of a trendsetter in Nigerian newspaper journalism in the past few years.
But "gov," the standard abbreviation for "governor," "governorship," and "government" in all varieties of English, could easily replace "guber" since "governorship" is, in fact, the more usual word than "gubernatorial" even in American English. Plus, "gov" actually saves more space than "guber."
So the invention of "guber" is the product of intellectual laziness and lack of imagination.
3. “Results of elections/victory upturned.” This error takes several forms, but the operative word here is “upturn.” Nigerian journalists write “upturn” when they should write “overturn.” These two words are completely unrelated. To overturn is to rule against or to cancel officially. “Upturn,” however, is never used as a verb in the sense of “reverse” or “overturn.” When “upturn” is used as a noun, it usually means an upward movement or improvement in business activity, etc. (Example: There has been an upturn in the economy). The opposite of upturn is downturn. Americans prefer “uptrend” to “upturn” to denote boom in business activity.
When “upturn” is used as an adjective (that is, when it is rendered as “upturned”), it is traditionally used in two senses. The first is as a synonym for “turned upside down” and the second is to describe the position of a person's nose. When a nose is described as upturned, it means it is turned up at the end. So it is more proper to talk of election results or electoral victories being “overturned” by the courts.
4. “Running neck to neck.” The correct form of the idiom is “neck and neck.” An abiding feature of idioms is grammatical fixity. That is, you can’t arbitrarily change the syntactic properties of idioms. “Neck and neck,” which means inconclusive as to outcome or just even in a race or comparison or competition, can also be rendered as “head-to-head” (maybe that’s where the “neck-to-neck” error comes from) or “nip and tuck.” For the sake of variety, or what stylisticians call “elegant variation,” I hope our journalists will try out these alternatives. I am sick of seeing “neck-to-neck” mentioned in every story about close electoral contests.
5. “Shoot-at-sight order.” In reporting the post-election communal upheavals, our journalists habitually describe government’s orders to shoot recalcitrant rioters as “shoot-at-sight” orders. But the correct rendering of the idiom is “shoot on sight.” Another alternative, which I actually prefer because of its unequivocalness,” is “shoot to kill.”
6. “Electioneering campaign.” This is a tautology, i.e., a useless repetition. Both “electioneering” and “campaign” mean the same thing. I think the source of the error is the mistaken notion that “electioneering” is an adjective that modifies “campaign.” But electioneering is a noun, NOT an adjective. It simply means “political campaign,” the campaign of a candidate to be elected. So it is sufficient to just write about “Goodluck Jonathan’s electioneering for the office of president” and spare us the verbal superfluity of an “electioneering campaign,” which actually adds up to “campaign campaign”!
7. “Contest an elective position.” This is not exactly an error; it’s only an archaic usage. In contemporary Standard English in both America and Britain, “contest” is now scarcely used as a verb to mean compete for an elective office against other candidates. The more usual words are “run” and “vie” (in American English) and “stand” (in British English).
When “contest” is used as a verb, it is often to indicate that something is being made the subject of dispute, contention, or litigation. So Americans would say, “General Buhari ran for president in 2011 and contested the outcome of the election.” Britons would say, “General Buhari stood for election to the office of president in 2011 and contested the outcome of the election.” But Indians, Pakistanis, and citizens of other former British colonies still use “contest” the way we use it in Nigeria.
8. “Lame duck.” A lame duck is an elected official who is still in office but not slated to continue either because he or she chooses not to seek re-election or because of constitutional term limits. It is also used to refer to an elected official who is continuing in office during the period between an election defeat and a successor's assumption of office, such as President Goodluck Jonathan now. But even after President Jonathan declared that he would run for president in 2011, I read stories and commentaries in Nigerian newspapers that described him as a “lame duck.” Someone also wrote an article in 2010 describing Plateau State governor Jonah Jang, who hadn’t served out his first time yet and who indicated he would seek a second term, as a “lame duck.”
Perhaps, people are deploying the extended meaning of the term that denotes a disabled or ineffectual person. But this can be confusing when it’s used in an election-related context since the term has a fixed meaning in electoral politics.
9. Impeach. Nigerians understand the word “impeach” to mean “remove from office.” But that is not what it means. To impeach a government official is to formally charge them with a wrongdoing. After impeachment, they will be tried and either acquitted (if they are not found guilty) or removed from office (if they are found guilty).
So, in 2006, Ekiti State governor Ayo Fayose wasn’t just impeached; he was impeached AND removed. Ten years earlier in America, Bill Clinton was impeached BUT acquitted. Removal from office is not the only outcome of impeachment, as the Clinton example showed.