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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Q and A on Nigerian English Learner Errors

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi


This edition of my Q and A column answers such questions as why I wrote “I know all this” instead of “I know all these” in a previous article, why the Nigerian media English expression “rented the air” is wrong, why “yesternight” isn’t a legitimate word, and why “yesteryear” and “kith and kin” are never pluralized in Standard English. I also answered a question about the grammaticality of the expression “it is high time we invited them.” 

If you’re on Twitter, follow me and feel free to send your questions to me via the medium. My handle is @farooqkperogi.


Question:
In your November 15, 2014 Weekly Trust column titled “Wole Soyinka’s Ignorant Statement on Ebiras and Fulanis” you wrote “I know all this because…” I think you’re wrong. It should be “I know all these because…”

Answer:
You’re not the first person to express this sentiment. I have received at least 10 other emails from readers who thought “all this” should be “all these.” I want to first note that I make no pretense to being perfect. I, too, make mistakes. But “all this” isn’t one of them.

“All this” is perfectly grammatical. But I can understand why some Nigerians think it’s ungrammatical. The first time I came across “all this” in a book a long time ago I also thought the book’s author was wrong. After all, when used as a pronoun “all” means “all people” or “all things,” which makes it a plural anaphor that should agree with plural nouns and verbs. (An anaphor is any word, for example a pronoun, that helps us avoid repetition by standing in for what had been mentioned earlier). But that’s not always true; “all” does not always agree with a plural verb. This is evidenced by the age-old proverb that goes: "all is well that ends well." No one says “all are well that end well.” Also note that the fixed expression “granting all this,” which is synonymous with “even though,” isn’t written as “granting all these.”

Having said that, it helps to know that there is a difference between “all this” and “all these.” “All this” means several things taken as a single whole while "all these” means several things considered as separate items. If I had written "I know all this things because..." I would have been guilty of a subject-verb discordance. But I wrote "I know all this because..." It means I regarded all that I mentioned before as a single whole.

 Another way to explain it is to say “all this” is the only appropriate phrase to use when the plural subjects you refer to are abstract. “All these” is appropriate only when concrete, discrete things are mentioned or implied AFTER the phrase, as in “all these people,” “all these things,” “all these drinks” etc.

Professor David Jowitt’s book, Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction, actually identifies the tendency to use “all these” in the sense you—and other Nigerian readers who wrote to me— suggested I use it as uniquely Nigerian English usage. On page 248 of his book, he wrote: “[Popular Nigerian English] regularly uses ‘these’ as an anaphoric pronoun referring to several abstract entities, where [Standard British English] uses ‘this.’ The [Popular Nigerian English] usage may be a sign of phonological non-differentiation (i.e., of /I/ and /i/…).” He cited a passage from Chukuemeka Ike’s The Naked Gods to buttress his point. The passage goes thus: “The only thing missing was a swimming pool, and he had hoped to make this up by importing one of the portable type [sic] from the States. In preparation for his impending reunion with his family, he had begun to construct a volley ball pitch and an archery range. The sudden decision to leave had upset all these.”

In the last sentence, “all these” should correctly be “all this.” Professor Jowitt’s suggestion that the tendency for Nigerian English users to use “all these” where native speakers use “all this” is a result of their inability to phonologically differentiate “this” from “these” isn’t accurate. While it is true that most Nigerians can’t phonologically differentiate “these” from “this” in their spoken English, I think their inability to differentiate “all these” from “all this” in their written English is a consequence of learner error. Nigerians have been taught that “these” is the plural form of “this,” and that “these” anaphorically refers to plural subjects while “this” anaphorically refers only to a singular subject. So they use this knowledge to make faulty inferences about the rules for using “all these” and “all this.” They haven’t been taught that “all this” is the only acceptable option in standard written English when reference is made to abstract subjects taken as a single whole. As Jowitt’s example shows, even Nigeria’s finest writers haven’t caught on to this tricky rule.

Question:
In Nigeria we like to say things like “shouts of ‘thief!’ ‘thief!!’ rented the air.” My question is: is the word “rented” used correctly here? If yes, is “rent” the present tense of “rented”? In other words, can I say “shouts of ‘thief!’ ‘thief!!’ will rent the air”?

Answer:
I addressed this issue in my forthcoming book, which should come out in July or August this year. This is what I wrote in the book, which is being published by Peter Lang Publishing USA: “Nigerian newspapers customarily write that shouts or cries “rented the air,” such as in this Vanguard news report: ‘There were uncontrollable shouts of “Nigeria sai Shema”, which rented the air when Sambo climbed the rostrum before he began his speech prior to his commissioning of the secretariat, which many interpreted to be a tacit call on Shema to take a shot at the presidency or vice presidency’ (Umoru, 2014). In Standard English the fixed expression that means ‘disturb (the air, silence, etc.) with a shrill or piercing tone’ is ‘rend the air’ and its past tense is ‘rent the air’ (as in: ‘shouts of “PDP!” rent the air’). ‘Rented’ is the past of ‘rent,’ that is, the temporary use of something under a contract such as renting an apartment.”

So saying “shouts of ‘thief!’ ‘thief!!’ will rent the air” would be ungrammatical. It should correctly be “shouts of ‘thief!’ ‘thief!!’ will REND the air.”

Question:
I had a prolonged argument with my friends as a result of a sentence we heard in a Nollywood movie. Desmond Elliot said, “Is this girl your sister? “It’s high time she LEFT this house...” They giggled terribly. They said he was wrong; that it was supposed to be “Its high time she LEAVE”. Prior to that, another person in the same film stated in another different scene that “It’s high time we INVITED the police”. I tried to convince them that that those sentences were right but they didn't believe me. I will like you to kindly help us out.

Answer:
You are right, and they are wrong. "It's high time" or sometimes "it's time" usually goes with a past tense if the intent is to convey the sense that something which should have been done has not been done or is late being done.

Question:
Is “yesternight” a legitimate word? How about “yesteryear”?

Answer:
Although Nigerian English speakers use it a lot, “yesternight” is an archaic word. That means contemporary native English speakers no longer use it. I have never heard a native English speaker say “yesternight” in all the years I’ve lived here. In place of “yesternight,” they say “last night.”

Yesteryear, on the other hand, is still in common use among native speakers. It means past times. However, unlike Nigerian English speakers, native English speakers don’t pluralize “yesteryear.” That is, “yesteryear” is never pluralized to “yesteryears.” It remains “yesteryear” whether it’s singular or plural, as in, “the people of yesteryear must give way to the youth.”

Question:
What is wrong with saying “kiths and kins” as a synonym for “relations” or “family members”?

Answer:
The usual expression is “kith and kin.” It is never pluralized, although Nigerian English speakers routinely pluralize it in speech and writing. 


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