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Prepositional and Collocational Abuse in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Prepositions are those pesky little words such as “to,” “on,” “from,” “for,” “of,” “with,” etc. that connec...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Prepositions are those pesky little words such as “to,” “on,” “from,” “for,” “of,” “with,” etc. that connect parts of sentences.  They are the main ingredients of many popular English collocations, that is, groups of words that almost always appear together in a sentence. For instance, phrases such as “put up with,” “accused of,” “on behalf of,” “in line with,” etc. “naturally” appear together. We never stop to question why the above sentences can’t appear differently, such as in these forms: “put up for,” “accused to,” “of behalf in,” etc. 

We immediately recognize these constructions as wrong because they lack what I call collocational cadence, that is, they don’t naturally co-occur in everyday speech. So they sound “weird” to the ear.
There are many popular Nigerian English expressions that violate the collocational rhythm of native-speaker varieties of the language. I present a few of them below, which mostly revolve around the misuse (or, in some cases, lack of use) of prepositions.

“Conducive.”  Nigerians are fond of saying that a place is or is not "conducive" without adding the preposition "to" after “conducive” to make a complete sense—that is, by the standards of American and British English where "conducive" ALWAYS co-occurs with the preposition "to." For instance, instead of saying, "our universities are not conducive," Britons and Americans would say "our universities are not conducive TO learning or living or scholarly productivity." Sometimes where Nigerian speakers of the English language make a complete sense by adding something to “conducive,” they tend to use the preposition “for” in place of “to,” as in: “our universities are not conducive for learning or living or scholarly productivity.” To “conduce to” is to make happen, to contribute to.

“Enable me do.”  Many scholars of Nigerian English have identified the tendency to omit the preposition “to” in the collocation “enable someone/something to do something” as one of the key features of our dialect of the English language. "Enable" and "to" are indissolubly "married" in American English and British English; one cannot appear without the other. So where Nigerians would write or say "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me buy a car," British or American English speakers would write or say "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me TO buy a car."

Professor Igboanusi, a prolific and well-regarded University of Ibadan scholar of Nigerian English, once pointed out that American English, like Nigerian English, also dispenses with the preposition “to” in the phrase “enable someone/something to do something.” That is wholly inaccurate. Only Nigerian, and perhaps Ghanaian, English omits “to” where “enable” occurs in a phrase. 

A non-Nigerian who has followed my writings on the distinctive stylistic imprints of Nigerian English was saved a potentially devastating 419 scam because he remembered my previous mention of the peculiarly Nigerian tendency to never let “enable” and “to” to co-occur in the same sentence. He said he received a well-written notification from a US State Department letterhead that he had won the Green Card Lottery. He was naturally overjoyed, he said, until he got to the end of the letter where this phrase appeared: “to enable us process your ….”

 He said the omission of “to” after “us” in the sentence activated memories of one of my writings on the subject and caused him to doubt the authenticity of the letter. And, sure enough, when he called the US State Department to confirm if the letter originated from them, he was told that no such letter was sent to him; that it was a scam. So, you see, awareness of the rules of grammar can save you from certain troubles.

“I replied you.” In native-speaker English varieties, “reply” always co-occurs with “to.” Where Nigerians would say “she didn’t reply my letter,” native speakers of the English language would say “she didn’t reply TO my letter.” “Reply” and “respond” are wholly synonymous. If we would never write “she didn’t respond my letter” we should also never write “she didn’t reply my letter.”

“Contest election.”  To “contest” something is to dispute it or to make it the subject of a legal proceeding in a court. But to “contest FOR” something is to struggle to gain power or control over something. But there is a tendency for Nigerians to say politicians “contested elections” when they actually mean the politicians “contested FOR elections.” If someone hasn’t gone to court to dispute the results of an election, he shouldn’t be described as having “contested an election.” This distinction is important for mutual intelligibility in international communication in English.

 As I wrote in a previous article, Americans and Britons tend to prefer the more conversational “run for” in place of “contest for.” Example: Goodluck Jonathan will run for re-election in 2015.

“Request for.” While Nigerians blithely omit prepositions when we use "enable," "contest," "reply," etc., we gladly pluck some from the air and insert them where they are normally not used in native varieties of the English language. An example is the phrase "request FOR." In American and British English "request" is never followed by a preposition. For example, where Nigerians would say "I requested FOR a loan from my bank," native speakers of the English language would write "I requested a loan from my bank." Of course, when "request" is used as a noun, it can co-occur with the preposition "to” such as in the phrase “a request to supply equipment to your office.”

"Off the light/generator" or "on the light/generator."  Nigerian English treats the prepositions “on” and “off” as verbs. No other variety of English I know of does that. Where other varieties of English would say “put/switch on the generator” we would say “on the generator.”  When "off" is used as a verb in informal American English, it means to kill someone intentionally, as in: he said he would off her if she turned down his proposal to marry her.

"Over and above." Nigerians understand use this prepositional phrase literally, although it is an idiomatic expression in native-speaker varieties of the English language. For instance, it's usual to come across expressions like, "He was promoted over and above me," where "over and above" merely intensifies the sense that someone was favored to our disadvantage in a promotion exercise. But in both American and British English, "over and above" only means "in addition to" or "besides" (example: they made a profit over and above the goodwill they got). Anytime you replace "in addition to" with "over and above" and it doesn't add up, you're probably misusing the idiom "over and above"— by the standards of American and British English.

Concluding thoughts:
It isn’t only Nigerian English that dislocates the collocational harmony of the English language. American English does, too. It’s just that America’s preeminence in the world ensures that the deviations of its variety of English sooner or later get social prestige and acceptance.  For instance, it used to be that “wait on somebody” meant to be a servant to somebody. But, in American English, it is now synonymous with to “wait for somebody.”

Other American subversions of age-old English collocations and prepositional phrases are “different than,” instead of “different from” and “in behalf of” instead of “on behalf of,” although “in behalf of” is still regarded as nonstandard in American English. 

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