By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Continued from last week
8. “Strike action.” Many well-known grammar columnists in Nigerian newspapers advise against the use of the phrase “strike action.” Recently, in condemning the use of “strike action” in a news story, one columnist sarcastically quipped: “You can as well embark on strike inaction!”
Another columnist said “strike action” is erroneous because it is formed by false analogy to “industrial action,”—the same way that Nigerians say “of recent” (instead of “recently”) by false analogy to the idiom “of late.”
They are wrong. Strike action, which is often simply shortened to “strike” in everyday English, is the outright cessation of work to register employee grievances. It’s a legitimate, even idiomatic, expression in all native varieties of English, as I will show shortly. But what is the difference between “strike action” and “industrial action”?
The term “industrial action” has two related meanings. Its first meaning is that it’s an umbrella term for all kinds of industrial protests, including strike actions. Its second and more specific meaning is that it is a form of industrial protest where workers merely deliberately slow down their productivity rather than stopping work outright. In the United States this sense of the term is often called “job action.”
Industrial action, moreover, is not necessarily always inspired by job-related grievances; it is sometimes politically-motivated. Other terms for the second sense of industrial action are “go-slow” in the UK (which incidentally means traffic jam in Nigerian English!) and “slow-down” in the United States.
Now back to “strike action.” All the corpora I consulted showed that “strike action” occurs more frequently in British English than in any variety of English. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, for instance, has 399 matches for the expression in British English. That is the highest of any variety of English. It appeared only 41 times in American English, 139 times in Canadian English, 74 times in Irish English, 78 times in Australian English, 59 times in Nigerian English, etc.
Here are a few recent examples of the use of “strike action” in prestigious British news media organizations: “This on the basis Unions threatened strike action prior to and during the games”—BBC, 2012; “The Unite union yesterday ruled out strike action by tanker drivers over Easter in order to focus on talks”—the Daily Mail, March 31, 2012; “UK travellers hit by European strike action # People travelling by air from the UK have been hit by today's strike action, with British Airways cancelling eight round-trip flights between London and Madrid and Barcelona, and two return services to Lisbon”—the Guardian, November 14, 2012.
In fact, the Oxford Dictionary of English recognizes “strike action” as idiomatic. It says “strike” can function as a modifier, and gives this example to illustrate this point: “local government workers went on strike action.” Again, this is the dictionary’s definition of “strike” as a verb: “undertake strike action against (an employer).”
So how did Nigerian grammar columnists come about the superstition that “strike action” is a Nigerian newspaper usage error? Well, perhaps it’s because they don’t find the expression in their editions of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which appears to be their most trusted grammar bible.
9. “Oftentimes.” This word is synonymous with “often,” and occurs more frequently in American English than in any variety of English. But Nigerian grammar columnists are almost united in insisting that the word is an exclusively Nigerian English usage—and that it is wrong. Well, they are wrong. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English both describe “oftentimes” as “the North American form of ‘often’.” They also say it’s “archaic” in British English. But an examination of the record of contemporary British English usage doesn’t support the claims of the dictionaries. According to the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, British English is second only to American English in the use of “oftentimes” in place of “often.”
A recent BBC article identified “oftentimes” as an Americanism that has crossed over to British English, especially among the youth. Maybe it’s more accurate to call “oftentimes” a hitherto British archaism that has regained, or is regaining, currency in contemporary British English via American English, where it has always been extant. Because modern dictionaries are now influenced by more accurate, real-time, web-inspired corpora of how people actually use the language, I expect the Oxford dictionaries to revise their characterization of “oftentimes” as “archaic.” In fact, Oxforddictiinaries.com, the most up-to-date online dictionary in the Oxford family, no longer describes “oftentimes” as North American or archaic. The version of the word everyone agrees is archaic is “ofttimes.”
10. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists say this rendering of the old-fashioned English expression that means whatever is acceptable for one person is acceptable for another is wrong, and insist that it be rendered as, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” But both variants are equally acceptable. Although the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary has an entry only for “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” other bigger, richer dictionaries acknowledge that “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” is an acceptable variant of “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
This series is by no means intended as a censure of Nigerian newspaper grammar columnists, who actually do a praiseworthy job of raising awareness of bad usage in the Nigerian news media. My intention is merely to alert people who are influenced by these columnists to some usage prescriptions the columnists have popularized, which have no basis in evidence.
Many of the usage superstitions that I’ve identified in this column were first spread, at least as far as I know, by the influential former Concord grammar columnist Bayo Oguntuase and uncritically repeated by others.
Here are the issues I’ve noticed with the columnists. First, they all seem to be over-reliant on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which is a good but severely limited dictionary. Second, where they go beyond the Learner’s Dictionary, they allow themselves to be held prisoner by usage books that are no more than the idiosyncratic pet peeves of snooty, self-appointed grammar police. Third, they mistake American usages and variants, most of which were introduced to Nigerian English by Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dele Giwa, and other influential American-trained Nigerian journalists, as errors.
Re: “How was your night?”
As usual, your grammar column in the Sunday Trust of March 1, 2015 was enlightening. I write to answer your invitation for elaboration on the possible SOURCES of the expression "How was your night?" in (Nigerian) English.
A possible source could be a SOCIOLINGUISTIC one. If we consider most alternatives to the English "Good morning" in many Nigerian languages, we discover that they connote the nocturnal/dusk-dawn period. Consider these few examples: HAUSA: "Ina KWANA?" [KWANA= night time, sleep]; IGBO: "IBOLA ci?" [=dark hours]; YORUBA: "e KARO?" [=same]; BABUR-BURA: "g3r PI ya?" [=sleep, night time]; KANURI: "nda WATU?" [=dawn phases; FULBE: "AWALI jam?" [=same].
So even from these examples, we can see how the sememe "YOUR NIGHT" got eventually "smuggled" into Nigerian English. In those Nigerian languages, asking about a friend's/neighbour's NIGHT may have performed some phatic function deep rooted in native sociocultural antecedents on NEIGHBOURLY CARE/COMMUNAL UNION. I hope you find these explanations significant. We are proud of you.
Dr. Ahmed Umar, Department of English, Federal University, Dutse.