"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: June 2013

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Writing and Grammar in the Age of Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging are inflicting tremendous violence on writing and grammar at alarmingly unimaginable scales. The annoying, sometimes frustratingly cryptic, abbreviations that social media have spawned in the last few years among young people are finding their way not only to formal interpersonal and organizational communication but to student academic writing and other serious contexts.

Teachers of grammar and writing all over the world are concerned, not only because these sorts of abbreviations are intellectually impoverished and thwart clear thinking and writing but also because young people who employ these social media-induced linguistic mutilations in their quotidian communicative activities seem incapable of realizing that it is grossly inappropriate to extend their peculiar usage norms to serious, formal contexts. They also don't realize that not everybody finds them “cool.”

In the past few months, I’ve been gathering data on the abbreviations that Nigerian youth have invented to communicate online. I’ve also been examining how these frankly irritating and occasionally brainless abbreviations are making unwelcome incursions into serious communication. 

For instance, Nigerian youth online render the pronoun “my” as “ma” and write “life” as “laif.” If the object of these alternative spellings is to save space, I don’t see what space is saved since the original spellings and the alternative spellings have the exact same number of letters. There are several such examples in Nigerian social media language, but I will save that for the week I choose to write exclusively on this phenomenon.

I personally feel offended when people I hardly know—and whom I am clearly older than and socially superior to—write to me using these exasperating and dim-witted abbreviations. It's even more annoying if it is email communication or Facebook messages sent through a computer, which imposes no space limit like phones do.

This week, I’ve chosen to share with you an insightful news report on the decline of writing and grammar in America and the United Kingdom. The report, titled “Does it matter if students can’t write well?,” was published in UK’s Financial Times on June 26, 2013. It was written by Michael Skapinker and can be found here. Enjoy.

It is odd that the problem persists when parents try to give their children every advantage
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a US-based professor, whose Dean had reprimanded him for trying to teach his students how to write. "That is not a writing class," the professor was told.

The professor, who has been teaching business and law students at some of America’s top universities for 50 years, told an MBA class that clear writing would be essential in their careers.

Each week in his class, they would compose a one-page memorandum, which he would read and mark (or grade). The memos would answer a simple question from their textbooks. “I wanted the assignment to be more about conveying their analyses than testing their ability to get the analyses right,” he said.

Were they grateful? “The students complained so vigorously to the Dean that I was asked to stop.” The students said that in today's business, they did not need to know how to write. “E-mails and tweets are the medium of exchange. So, they argued, the constant back-and-forth gives one an opportunity to correct misunderstandings caused by unclear thinking and writing.”

The Dean insisted that the professor should make the writing exercise voluntary. By the end of the term, only one student, a non-native English speaker, was submitting the assignments.

The professor’s worry about writing is widely shared. According to 2008 research, 46 per cent of first-year California State University students needed writing help.

The deficiency is not confined to undergraduates. A study published in 2009 in the journal Current Issues in Education found that a group of 97 US masters and doctoral students did no better in a diagnostic writing test than the typical college-bound high school senior.

Teachers at even the UK’s top universities say the same. David Abulafia, a Cambridge history professor, said in a talk this year: “People do not know how to write. Command of grammar, punctuation and spelling is atrocious.”

There was a need, Prof Abulafia said, to recover “an art (I shan’t call it a skill) that has been lost and has to be instilled in first-year undergraduates even at Oxford and Cambridge: the ability to write continuous prose, clearly, elegantly, concisely, setting out an argument”.

Is students’ writing really worse, or are professors imagining a golden age of literacy that never existed?

People have been complaining about writing for a while. “If your children are attending college, the chances are that when they graduate they will be unable to write ordinary, expository English with any real degree of structure and lucidity,” Newsweek Magazine said in a famous essay called “Why Johnny can’t write”. That was in 1975, and the experts blamed “the simplistic spoken style of television”.

Today, Prof Abulafia says poor writing “may reflect a society in which fewer young people read and much of their informal writing consists of Twitter and Facebook messages”. He does, however, also worry about rote learning in schools and that pupils receive no reward in examinations for having read more widely. He adds that many more students are now sitting school-leaver A-level examinations, which means teachers and examiners have less time to spend on each candidate.

Whether poor writing is new or old, it is odd that it persists at a time when parents are vying to provide their children with any possible advantage, exposing them to Paul Klee at the age of four, as the New York Times recently reported, and teaching them to sing “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” in Mandarin.

If there is such a shortage of competent writers, why are ambitious parents not rushing to make sure their kids can compose an elegant English essay, and why are MBA students not scrambling to do the same?

One possible answer is that there really isn’t much of a demand and that being a decent writer commands no premium in the job market. Are the US professor’s students right in thinking that Twitter, Facebook and text messaging are all they need?

I doubt it. There are still jobs where good writing matters. It is hard to see those law students stepping up to the bench without being able to render a literate judgment. And I can’t be the only customer who assumes that a banker who doesn’t know where an apostrophe goes is going to be equally careless with my money.

There’s a gap in the market and the smarter parents and students should get on to it. Good writing is far easier to master than Mandarin.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

More on Sexual Harassment, Female Nudity and Nigerian Universities

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A preponderance of the reactions I received to my column on the epidemic of sexual harassment in Nigerian universities suggested that by failing to highlight that female students do sometimes initiate sexual advances to lecturers to curry favors, I didn’t capture the complexity of the problem. Others asked that I examine the role scantily clad girls on university campuses play in encouraging sexual harassment.

There is no denying that many female students sometimes tempt their lecturers into having sex with them in exchange for better grades. It is also true that many lecturers are seduced by the temptations of provocative female dressing on campuses.

However, none of these circumstances justify the prevalent sexual predation of female students on our campuses. If a lecturer succumbs to the seduction of his female students in exchange for better grades, it is still sexual exploitation because of the unequal power dynamics in the relationship. Lecturers should—and can—spurn the temptations of their students. For instance, in a May 29, 2010 article I wrote titled “Tributesto Little-Known Heroes,” I narrated how Professor Attahiru Jega repelled the sexual overtures of a female student. He was famous for that. This is what I wrote:

“One day, two of my friends at [Bayero University Kano] brought a strikingly beautiful girl to me. She was distraught with grief. Her eyes were bloodshot from excessive crying. She was in danger of not graduating because she failed a course Jega taught. My friends brought her to me because they said I was ‘Jega’s boy’ and could help her. By her own admission, she didn’t deserve to pass the course.

“She said she was sure that she could use her beauty and incredibly tempting bodily endowments to compel any lecturer to give her whatever grade she wanted. She told me she’d actually ‘passed’ other courses that way. But she said when she went to Jega’s office in her most provocative dress—one that, according to her, could rouse a dead man to life— Jega didn’t even look at her twice. He firmly said there was nothing he could do to help her. She wondered if he was sexually impotent. Well, I told her Jega had beautiful children who were, in fact, his spitting image.

“She promised to give me ‘anything’ if I could help talk to Jega to change his mind. Of course, I told her the moment I even dared to bring that kind of issue up would be the moment Jega would stop relating to me. The young grieving lady left and said ‘his [i.e., Jega’s] wife must be very lucky.’”

Note that I wrote this more than three years ago when Jega wasn’t appointed INEC chairman. Like Jega, many lecturers have a reputation for being honorable in their dealings with their female students. So it’s not as if male lecturers are passive, helpless victims of the sexual enticements of their students. Because the power dynamics are in their favor, lecturers can resist the sexual baits of their students without any consequence.

Another issue that the Jega example illustrates is that scanty clothing in and of itself is not sufficient to cause a lecturer to sexually exploit his female students. If you think Nigerian female undergraduates are scantily clothed, come to America, especially during summers. The dressing on Nigerian university campuses is tame and modest.

Now, I have no problem with Nigerian universities that choose to impose dress codes on their students (both male and female), but I have a problem with people who justify the rape of female students on account of their dressing.  Female nudity is not like a syringe that injects men with a dramatic and irresistible urge to have sexual liaisons.

When I started teaching here in the United States about 10 years ago, I faced a sticky situation. A female student of mine became unusually drawn to me. She would always sit on the front seat without fail and would stare at me in ways that struck me as unusual. My suspicions were confirmed when, in the middle of the semester, she invited me for dinner. I politely turned it down. She invited me two more times. I politely declined both. Then came the bombshell: she called me one day and said she was sexually attracted to me; that she didn’t care that I was married, and that she didn’t want any favors from me because she was a straight “A” student.

At that point, I told my colleagues what was going on. They advised that I report the case to a superior. The summary of the story is that I made it clear to the student I couldn’t have any intimate relationship with her whatsoever. And that ended the matter.

I froze off my student’s temptations not necessarily because my morality is superior to the Nigerian university lecturers who habitually take advantage of the desperation of their female students to sexually exploit them. I did it because I knew there could be grave consequences for any indiscretion on my part.  Having sex with a student in America constitutes grounds for outright termination of appointment. Every person employed here learns this during orientations, and the laws guiding teacher-student relation are clearly spelled out in staff/faculty handbooks.

This is what Nigerian universities need: a clearly defined structural mechanism to regulate the intimate relational dynamics between students and their teachers and an effective mechanism for redress for students who are violated by their lecturers. At the moment, the many Nigerian university lecturers who refuse to sexually exploit their students and who spurn the seduction of their students do so out of their personal and religious morality. That’s not sustainable in the long run. You can’t run institutions on the basis of people’s personal moral codes. 

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Q and A on American and Nigerian University Terminologies

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week, I answer questions on the meaning and uses of the term “professor” in American and Nigerian universities, whether or not “spillover” and “carryover” (terms widely used in Nigerian universities) have the same meaning elsewhere, and on subject-verb agreement. Enjoy.

What is the difference in the meaning of “professor” in American and British/ Nigerian English?

There are several differences. I’ve written about this in a previous article titled “Comparing the Vernaculars of American and British Universities.” 

The first difference is that anybody who teaches in an American university is informally addressed as a “professor.” Therefore, the term “professor” functions exactly the same way as “lecturer” does in Nigerian and British English, except that “lecturer” is never used as a title before the name of a person in Nigeria or Britain. In British/Nigerian English, “professor” is reserved only for an academic who has reached the highest professional rank in the university. Americans use the term “full professor” for that.

Second, while “professor” is a lifetime title in British/Nigerian English, it is not in American English. That is, in Britain and Nigeria, once you’ve attained the rank of professor, you’ve earned the privilege (perhaps the right) to have “professor” prefixed to your name for life; in America, you cease to be addressed as “professor” the moment you stop teaching in the university.

Third, in more formal settings, American university teachers and researchers are often addressed as “Dr.” (rather than “professor) if they have a Ph.D. It is usual to read something like “Dr. John Brown is a full/associate/assistant professor of geography.” In Britain and Nigeria, on the other hand, people cease to be addressed as “Dr.” once they’ve been appointed “professor.” For more on this, refer to my article referenced above.

Recently I was discussing the phrase "spill over" as used in Nigerian universities with an in-law and he told me that one of his lecturers (who is an Indian) said it's wrong to use it in that context. My questions are: Is the Indian right? If yes, what is the appropriate word to be used?

Yes, the Indian is right. As far as I know, only Nigerian universities use “spillover” in connection with spending an extra year in school, as in “spill-over students.” In all other varieties of English, “spill-over” is often used to mean a whole host of things, none of which has any connection with spending an extra year in a university.

Spillover can mean the unintended effect of something, as in “the spillover effect of the fight.” It is also often used to mean the spreading of something into another area. Example: There has been a spillover of America’s lax moral rules into the Nigerian society as a result of the popularity of American popular culture in Nigeria. Anything that spreads from another area is also called a spillover. For instance, we can say “Gwarimpa is a spillover from Abuja.” I guess it’s the last sense of the term that informs Nigerian universities’ decision to label students who can’t graduate with their cohort “spillover students,” except that the addition of “students” after “spillover” makes the phrase both ungrammatical and unidiomatic. When spillover is used as a modifier (that is, when it appears before a noun) it often means an unexpected repercussion, as in “spillover violence.” But it usually collocates with “effect,” as in “spillover effect.”

Similarly, Nigerian universities use “carry-over” in ways that no other English-speaking university in the world I know of does. In all the varieties of English I am familiar with, “carry-over” simply means “something transferred or extended from an earlier time or another place.” The term is also used in British English to mean “the accumulated and undivided profits of a corporation after provision has been made for dividends and reserves,” among other meanings.

Only Nigerian English uses “carry-over” to mean exams failed in a previous semester or year.
The appearance of “spillover” and “carry-over” in the lexicon of Nigerian universities is the consequence of our cohort-based system of education where people who start a program of study take almost identical courses at the same time and are expected to graduate at the same time, usually within a four-year period for most degrees in the humanities and the social sciences. That is not the way the educational system is structured elsewhere.

You asked what term you should use instead of “spillover” (or “carryover”). Well, I don’t know of any. Americans typically complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years, but several people take way longer than that to complete theirs, and no one considers such students as “spilling over” from anywhere. Most classes normally consist of second-, third- and fourth-year students because classes are not cohort-based. All you need to enroll in a class is pass the prerequisite for the class. If you’ve passed the prerequisite to for a final-year course while in your second year, no one will stop you from registering for the class.

 Similarly, failing a course carries no implication that the course is being “carried over” from anywhere. It is simply a “fail.” So American (and I guess British) universities have no lexical equivalents for Nigerian “spillover” and “carryover.”

The language people use is often a reflection of their material reality. Nigerian universities invented the terms “spillover” and “carryover” because of their peculiar instructional models. Those terms will continue to be useful, even indispensable, so long as the system that brought them forth remains. I think you should have no grammatical anxieties about using these terms as long as you’re in Nigeria. When you’re outside Nigeria, explain to your interlocutors what the terms mean. It’s as simple as that.

In formulating a research question I wrote 'What proportion of people living in Nasarawa State have been exposed to Lassa fever infection?' Microsoft Word suggested 'has' in place of 'have' and I complied. My supervisor changed it back to 'have'; please, who is correct?

Microsoft is right. Here is why. The verb "have" in your sentence agrees with "proportion," NOT "people living in Nasarawa State." Grammarians call the tendency to make verbs agree with the nouns closest to them (often called a "distracting predicate noun") rather than the subject of a sentence a "false attraction." So you and your supervisor are guilty of false attraction.

 In your sentence, the subject is "what proportion" and the distracting predicate noun is "people living in Nasarawa State." In subject-verb rules, the verb agrees with the subject, not the predicate noun. In both British and American English, nouns like "proportion," "percentage,” etc. usually take the singular verb in a sentence. Example: A proportion of the crops in the farm GOES to waste every year.

This is also true if the phrase "the proportion of" is used with either a plural countable noun or a singular noun that refers to a group of people. Example: The proportion of Nigerians who apply for the American Green Card Lottery IS increasing every year. The only instance when "proportion" can be used with a plural verb is when it is preceded by such phrases as "a large," "a small," "a high," etc. Example: A large proportion of medical doctors HAVE abandoned medical practice for politics in Nigeria.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Re: The Sexual Harassment Epidemic in Nigerian Universities

As usual, I am sharing with you a sample of reader reactions to last week’s column. I will write more on this subject next week.

 Thank you for sharing this. On the part of ASUU, I am a member of the ethics committee working to develop a policy document to address this problem at the union level. The committee has been working assiduously and in the light of this recent development, we have additional ammunition to prevail on the National Executive Council and principals of the union to adopt our recommendation with seriousness and utmost urgency
Rabia Said, Kano

This is a fairly balanced report but you also need to consider the other side. Even though this does not in any way excuse the action of the lecturers, many of the girls do tempt the lecturers, too. I give two instances: I lectured in a university in Nigeria in the 1980s. One of my student s was always flaunting her major 'asset' at me instead of concentrating on the lectures. She failed the semester exams. She approached my friend to talk to me to accept sexual favors from her in exchange for a passing grade in my course. Of course, I rejected the offer. Secondly, while doing a Ph.D. coursework in another university, another incident took place. A girl had failed a course and offered herself to the lecturer. The lecturer declined and said she should give it to his friend who should give a positive report to enable her grade to be inflated. The friend declined but decided to contact me for the service. Again, I said 'no'. This is pitiable.
These stories are not meant to exculpate lecturers but to highlight that many girls themselves do not devote themselves to academics. They pursue other activities. It should be noted that as chaotic as the system is, the girls always have the right to ask for re-marking of their scripts.
Isa Le

I hope the NUC and the ASUU would "courageously" handle this disturbing issue with all the fairness and seriousness it deserves. Instinctively and tribalistically supporting every opportunistic lecturer in the name of solidarity or unionism would not help our society into which our own daughters would grow. Just before the shutdown of mobile communications in Maiduguri, a female student of mine complained to me almost daily during Facebook chats about a certain lecturer who is harassing her and pestering her for illicit sexual favours almost daily. The power relation is decidedly in favour of lecturers and presently there is no formal structure or channel for complaint. Students cannot graduate unless they pass ALL the courses they have registered for. And lecturers fear such a structure would hand "mischievous" students a ready tool for blackmail! This fear can easily be resolved through a formal structure which employs thorough investigation of allegations on a case-by-case basis.

We often erroneously scoff at America for its "moral decadence" but it is clear from your write-up that the US stands on a higher moral pedestal than Nigeria not only in sexual matters but in the general conduct of public officers. I am not talking about consensual sex between unmarried people which the West generally condones, if not encourage; I am talking about attitudes to sexual crimes like rape, harassment, etc. These crimes deserve the degree of seriousness given to other types of misconduct (especially doctoring of results to victimize or favour students) by lecturers. The first piece of advice I received from a senior colleague when I got a teaching job at a university is "don't lose your job in the name of helping a student to pass". He was referring to result-changing by a teacher to favour a student which has led to the termination of appointments for many in the system. The society must hold lecturers to a high moral standard. Without formal safeguards and supports, many victims would not come out to complain because of fear of reprisals; they would rather suffer in silence in a conservative society.
Abdulrahman Muhammad, India

Let me start by saying may Allah S.W.T bless you and reward you with Jannatul firdausi for daring to speak the truth, despite the fact that you come from the same academic environment in question. It's really sad and frightening the way our universities are turning into academic brothels. I recall during my undergraduate years how one of the lecturers in the Dept. Of Political Science was caught red-handed having sex with a girl in his office!! But the least punishment he got was a suspension. He is still working with the university and nothing changed from his behaviour. He even has the audacity to make some sexually suggestive comments to female students whenever he feels like.  I do hope this write-up will be a wakeup call to the very few good academicians and people in power to sanitize our universities from the clutches of the he-goat lecturers that take advantages of our dear sisters and daughters. I think NUC should copy from Banks where fraudsters are not given a second chance. Please Sir, bring out more of this write-ups as we are in dire need of them.  THANK YOU VERY MUCH SIR!! ONLY GOD WILL REWARD YOU. PLEASE KEEP IT UP.

Thanks for yet another wonderful piece. The issue of sexual harassment is now rampant on most of Nigeria’s corporate organizations, not only campuses. But I agree that the university case is more disturbing, because it is the breeding ground for future leaders where they are supposed to be found worthy in both "character" and “learning" before they earn their degrees. However, due to laggardness and materialistic aggrandisement of some female students they tend to make "advances" to the lecturers for higher grades, and also pimp themselves to rich folks (staff or student) for sponsoring their studies. Prof. Nigerian university campuses are next to brothel. There is nothing one can do. Charity should begin at home.

Abubakar Mohd Isah, Bauchi

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Q and A on Concord, Archaism, and Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In what follows, I answer readers’ questions on subject-verb agreement, archaisms, whether or not “youth” has a plural, whether or not the phrase “the ordinary Nigerian” is uniquely Nigerian English, and if it is proper to end a sentence with a contraction. Enjoy.

I am a journalist in Lagos and have never failed to read, nay study, your grammar column since I discovered it a year ago. It’s the only reason I read Sunday Trust. You provide an invaluable service to the journalism profession and to Nigerian education. I hope you never stop. I have a question for you: does the word “youth” have a plural form? Can one say “youths”? Many editors here insist that youth is a collective noun that has no plural form. Is that correct?

The notion that “youth” has no plural is one annoyingly persistent superstition in Nigerian grammar circles. I can relate to your frustration. When I worked briefly at the New Nigerian, my editor once changed every reference to “youths” in my news report to “youth.” I told him he was wrong; that “youth” can have a plural form depending on the context of its usage. He insisted he was right and marred my story with his ignorance. As Alexander Pope says, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

The straightforward answer to your question is, yes, “youth” does have a plural form, and it is “youths.” But a little nuance is in order. “Youth” can mean “a young man.” When it is used in that sense, its plural is “youths.” It is entirely correct to say or write “youths from the Niger Delta protested at the National Assembly.” It is the same thing as saying “young men from the Niger Delta protested at the National Assembly.”

Note, though, that when “youth” is used in this sense, it is often derogatory. The Oxford English Corpus reveals that, in the last few years, the majority of references to “youths” in popular usage have an undisguised tone of disapproval. The word appears in phrases like “gang of youths,” “unruly youths,” “unemployed youths,” “disaffected youths,” “drunken youths,” etc.  That was not the case in the distant past. Nor should it always be the case.

The sense of youth that does not take a plural form is when it is used as a collective noun to mean young people of both sexes, as in “the youth of Nigerian has been disillusioned by mass unemployment after graduation.” When youth is used in an abstract sense to mean the state of being young, it also does not take a plural form. Example: “During the youth of the projects we were all united.”

This distinction is often lost on Nigerian editors who seem to have adopted a policy of blanket ban on the plural form of “youth.”

I had an argument with a group of Nigerians who insisted that the phrase “the ordinary Nigerian” is Nigerian English, which they said is elitist and derogatory to common people. I thought I would pick your brain on this. Is “ordinary Nigerian” uniquely Nigerian and is it demeaning?

“The ordinary Nigerian” is a perfectly legitimate expression. There is nothing uniquely Nigerian about it. Nor is there anything even remotely pejorative about it. All English-speaking people have a version of that expression in their demotic speech. For instance, Americans habitually use the expression “the ordinary American” to mean the average American. There is even a website called "the ordinary American." When they don’t say “the ordinary American,” they say “the Average Joe,” “ the Ordinary Joe,” “Joe Sixpack” (for males because Joe is common male first name in America) and “Ordinary Jane,” “ the Average Jane,” or “Plain Jane” (for females because Jane is a common female first name in America).

British people also say “the ordinary Briton,” “the ordinary Brit,” “the ordinary British person,” etc. to refer to the average person in the street. Celebrated British playwright George Bernard Shaw once famously said “The ordinary Britisher imagines that God is an Englishman.”

The ordinary Canadian, the ordinary Australian, etc. are usual phrases people use as a stand-in for the average person in the street. There is not a whiff of condescension in the phrase.

I continue to follow your columns and find them a useful addition to my readings. Kindly look at the title of your Weekly Trust column that reads: “Tribute to Teachers Who Made Me Who I’m.”  Should it end as "I'm" or "I am"?  Why do I think it should be the latter?

Thanks for your kind comment, and for calling my attention to the apparent syntactic awkwardness of the headline of my article. Yes, you're right that ending a sentence with a contraction (such as “I'm,” “can’t,” “don’t,” etc.) seems rather unnatural. But there is no rule against it that I can find in any grammar book. That is why Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, the acclaimed nineteenth-century English dramatist who contributed a lot to modern spoken and written English, could write in his comic opera titled Ruddigore:  “Avoid an existence of crime/ Or you will be as ugly as I'm.”

Notice that he ended the last sentence with "I'm" like I did. In my case, though, I contracted "I am" to “I’m” because I wanted to conserve headline space. As you probably know, rules of proper sentence construction don't often apply to headlines because, by nature, headlines are not always complete sentences. They are often sentence fragments and sometimes intentionally violate certain grammatical rules in the service of space and brevity. Linguists call headline English “headlinese.”

Which of the following statements is correct: 1. “The top management team comprise of…. 2. “The top management team comprises of…”

None is correct. It should be “the top management team comprises...” In proper grammar, the verb “comprise” does not admit of the preposition “of.” I have written about this in previous articles. The reason “comprise of” is considered improper grammar is that “comprise” means “consists of” or “composed of.” That means the addition of the preposition “of” after “comprise” is needlessly repetitive. In other words, “comprise,” “consist of,” and “compose of” are synonymous. Although “comprise of” appears even in native-speaker English, it is stigmatized as uneducated usage.

But you probably just wanted to know what the subject-verb agreement between “top management team” and “comprise” should be. In other words, you wanted to know if collective nouns (such as “team,” “committee,” “majority,” “jury,” “family,” “audience,” etc.) agree with a singular or a plural verb? The answer isn’t straightforward.

 In British English, collective nouns agree with both singular and plural verbs depending on the meaning the speaker or writer intends to convey. If I regard a family as one cohesive unit, I would say something like “the family HAS agreed to visit us today.” But if I think of the family as composed of individuals, I would say something like “The family HAVE agreed to visit us today.” If we apply this to your question, either “the top management team comprises” or “the top management team comprise” would be correct.

In American English, however, collective nouns always agree with singular verbs. That means, using your example again, only “the top management team comprises…” would be correct in American English.

Please I would like to know the meaning of “twoscore.” I have checked my dictionary but could not find the meaning. Malam Adamu Adamu did a piece in the Daily Trust a few days back with the title "ABU at twoscore." I could not understand what he meant.

Twoscore is an archaic word for 40. You didn't find it in a modern dictionary because most people no longer use it. However, although it’s an archaic word, it can be used in modern writing for literary effects. This is true of all archaisms.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Sexual Harassment Epidemic in Nigerian Universities

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week, two sensational, high-profile stories have helped to push the epidemic of sexual harassment of female students in Nigerian universities to the forefront of public consciousness. As a university teacher myself and the father of two daughters, I am disconcerted that sexual harassment has been left to flourish luxuriantly on Nigerian university campuses.

On June 10, several of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers shared the disquieting story of a Delta State University lecturer by the name of Ifeanyi Ugwu Raphael who was caught red-handed while attempting to have sex with his female student whom he’d promised to give a passing grade in return for sexual favors. Pictures of the lecturer’s scroungy, naked body now litter Nigerian cyber spaces.

The story was that the lecturer, as was his wont, made several sexual advances to the female student, which she serially rebuffed. The lecturer then “got even” with her by failing her. This happened when she was in her second year. Now that she is about to graduate and needs the course to satisfy her graduation requirements, she approached the lecturer to ask what it would take to pass his course. As expected, he asked for a tryst.

The student informed her male friends about this, and her friends encouraged her to invite the lecturer to her apartment. Like sheep to the slaughter, the lecturer visited the student in her apartment, immediately took off his clothes, and was salivating in anticipation of what he thought he was going to do when the student’s male friends barged in and stopped him dead in his tracks. His naked pictures were taken and splashed all over the Internet.

A day later, we read the story of a 66-year-old Professor Festus David Kolo of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria who was sentenced to two months in prison for sexually harassing a pregnant married woman. After pestering the woman, who is a postgraduate student, with numberless phone calls, sexually explicit text messages, and unrelenting verbal entreaties, he invited her to a guest house for a liaison. Unknown to him, the police and the woman’s husband had been informed and were lying in wait for him.  Like Raphel of Delta State University, he was caught pants down—literally—with the pregnant married woman.  In an interesting twist, the woman’s husband, Muhammad Isyaku, is also a lecturer at a different institution.

These two cases are only samples of the culture of flagrant sexual harassment of female students that has taken deep roots on Nigerian university campuses. Our university campuses have become malodorous moral cesspools where lewd, degenerate lecturers prey on female students with impunity.  There is no parent of girls in Nigeria who is not profoundly concerned about sending their girls to Nigerian universities. It’s almost like sending sheep to a pack of wolves.

And it keeps getting worse every day. Lecturers don’t just sexually harass or rape their students; some now pimp them to rich men. I am familiar with a particularly perturbing case of a lecturer who was found guilty of pimping his pretty female students to top military officers in exchange for handsome financial reward. The military officers would go and “survey” the female students in his class. They would then let him know which girls caught their fancy. The lecturer would call the students and tell them to go have sex with his “clients.” Students who spurned his command were threatened with permanent “carry-over.”

One day, one female student who had had enough of the lecturer’s shenanigans decided to report him to the chair of his department. The case went up to the university senate and scores of students came forward to testify against the pimping lecturer. In the end, he confessed to his transgressions. Shockingly, however, he only received a warning from the university authorities. I hear the man still pimps his female students but does it in more careful ways.

Of course, not all university lecturers take advantage of their female students. Many lecturers, in fact, are conscientious, morally upright people who would never demand sexual favors from their female students or pimp them to rich folks. But this fact does not vitiate the truth that our universities are beset by a disturbing culture of sexual harassment and that female students, especially good-looking female students, are a vulnerable group on Nigerian university campuses.

This is so because there are no clear, unmistakable laws against sexual harassment in the statutes of our universities. And because there are no explicit boundaries for what constitutes sexual harassment or laws against it, there are no consequences for engaging in it. At the very least, lecturers found guilty of sexual harassment should have their appointments terminated outright.

That is the way it is in America where I teach. A teacher cannot be romantically entangled with a student he or she teaches even if the relationship is consensual. Similarly, a lecturer cannot make sexually suggestive comments, jokes, or gestures to a student—any student. Doing so constitutes grounds for termination of appointment if found guilty. That is why on June 11, an appeals court upheld the firing of a professor here who made sexually explicit jokes to his students when he took them on a study-abroad program in Spain in 2010.

The professor, identified as Robert Ammon Jr., had had a little too much beer and, in a moment of intoxication, said one of his female student would be his favorite student "if she sucked my d--k." That was it. His university, the Slippery Rock University in the state of Pennsylvania, fired him for sexual harassment. He appealed against his firing, but an appeals court upheld it on June 11.

That is how it should be. Being put in a position to nurture the minds of young people is a sacred responsibility. There should be grave consequences for betraying this responsibility. I hope the National Universities Commission and the Academic Staff Union of Universities will consider the criminalization of sexual harassment a priority before our universities turn into graveyards for women.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

For the part I, click this link

A reader called my attention to the fact that Aso Rock is also a tautonym in the class of Lake Chad and Lagos Lagoon. He said “Aso” is the Gbagyi word for “rock” so that, were it not for the fact that “aso” and “rock” belonged to two mutually unintelligible languages, Aso Rock would translate as “Rock rock.” I also learned recently that “Sahara desert” is a tautonym because “sahara” is the Arabic word for “great desert.” But as I said last week, grammarians have no problems with tautological place names because they aid clarity. They belong to what I have termed socially favored tautologies.

 But there is a wide range of tautological expressions in English that invite the scorn and rebuke of the grammar police and that careful writers avoid. I call those types of tautologies socially disfavored tautologies. There are at least four types that I can identify: the RAS syndrome, semantic redundancies, double comparatives/superlatives, and double negatives.

 The RAS syndrome. The phrase stands for Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome. It is deliberately repetitive to call attention to the errors it mimics, that is, the tendency to repeat the last words of common abbreviations, such as ATM machine (the “m” in ATM stands for “machine”), PIN number (the “n” in PIN stands for “number”), HIV virus (the “v” in HIV stands for “virus”), OPEC countries (the “C” in OPEC stands for “countries”), RAM memory, etc.  The RAS syndrome is easier to avoid in writing than in speaking, and some authorities actually say it is justified in speech because it reinforces meaning and clarity.

Semantic redundancies. These are expressions that are universally ridiculed as needlessly repetitive. Examples are “both the two of them” (both already implies “two-ness”), “return back,” “adequate enough,” “repeat again,” “new innovation,” “added bonus,” “kill to death,” “short summary,” “joint collaborations,” “fellow colleague,” “loud bang,”etc. These expressions get a bad rap for being redundant because people in the symbolic language power structure (prescriptivist grammarians, English teachers, journalists, etc.) frown at them—for now. The socially favored tautologies I mentioned last week aren’t syntactically or semantically different from these socially disfavored ones. Many people avoid them just because they don’t want to be thought of as ignorant. But there is really no logic to the acceptance and rejection of certain tautologies.

Having said that, there are some expressions that are grammatically problematic in addition to being tautological. One of such expression is “was a former,” which appears regularly in native-speaker English. In Longman Guide to English Usage, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two leading authorities in English grammar, say the expression is indefensible. “It is illogical to say that any living person was a former anything. Do not write: Our new chairman was the former company secretary. You can say either that he is the former secretary or that he was formerly the secretary.”

The consensus among grammarians seems to be that somebody who “was a former” anything is dead. If he “is a former” something, he is alive but no longer in his previous position.

Double comparatives/superlatives. The most socially disfavored tautologies are the kinds that repeat the degrees of adjectives. Examples: more better, more fatter, more faster, etc. These are called double comparatives because in modern grammar “more” is prefixed to adjectives to express their comparative degree only if the adjectives don’t have the “er” suffix at the end. For instance, we say “more beautiful” because there is no “er” at the end of “beautiful.” But we can’t say “more prettier” because we have already modified “pretty” to express a comparative degree by adding “er” at the end of the word.
 The same logic applies to words that have both “most” and the “est” suffix such as “most fastest,” “most prettiest,” “most nicest,” etc. Those kinds of expressions are called double superlatives because they contain both “most” before and “est” after the adjectives they modify. “Most” is used only for adjectives that don’t admit of “est” when they are in the superlative degree. Note, though, that this is a relatively recent grammatical rule. As you saw last week, in Shakespearean times, double superlatives and comparatives were perfectly legitimate.

Double negatives: Like double comparatives and double superlatives, double negatives are stigmatized in Standard English and are often avoided by educated people. Double negatives occur when you combine two negations in the same sentence, such as saying "I am not giving it to nobody" or "I didn't give him nothing." "Not," "nobody," "didn't" and "nothing" are all negations whose simultaneous appearance in the same sentence has the effect of canceling each other out and producing a weak positive, according to the logic of modern grammar. So "I am not giving it to nobody" should be "I am not giving it to anybody." Else, it would mean the opposite what it probably intended.

It should be noted that the stigmatization of double negatives in Standard English is relatively recent. It was standard in Old and Middle English, and it has survived in many nonstandard native English dialects such as Ebonics ( or Black English) and Southern US English in America and East London and East Anglian dialects in England. 

Neither socially favored nor disfavored
There are other tautologies that fall in the twilight zone between social favor and disfavor. That is, grammarians don’t seem to either explicitly frown at them or approve of them. For instance, meteorologists in England and America habitually talk of “heavy downpour,” which strikes me—and many people—as tautological, but which is not nearly as ridiculed as other expressions in the same category. A downpour is defined as heavy rain, so a heavy downpour is pleonastic. This same is true of “light drizzle.” A drizzle is light rain.

Other expressions that, in my judgment, fall in this category are “short nap” (a nap is a short sleep), “new beginning,” and “young children.” But the last two can be defended. A fresh opportunity to try something that one had failed in is a new beginning, and that makes logical sense. Similarly, young children can be defended as referring to children under the age of 4. Somebody once asked me if the expression “extreme end” is tautologous and my response was that it was defensible. I wrote that from my perspective, “extreme end” isn't redundant “since an ‘end’ is sometimes a continuum, that is, a continuous succession in which no part or portion is distinct or distinguishable from adjacent parts. So, for instance, we might regard the end of colonialism in Nigeria as beginning from the late 50s and ending in the early 60s. We can legitimately say that the extreme end of colonialism in Nigeria is 1960. Extreme end indicates the very last of the continuum.”

Tautologies exclusive to Nigerian English
All the while, I have been discussing tautologies that are present in all varieties of English, including native-speaker varieties. But there are some tautologies that are exclusively Nigerian. I will mention only a few here. The first that comes to mind is “sendoff party.” First, sendoff isn’t an adjective, nor is it an attributive noun. So it can’t be used before a noun. It is itself a noun that means a party for someone who is leaving a place. That means “sendoff party” is both tautological and ungrammatical. There is also “electioneering campaign,” which has assumed idiomatic status in Nigerian English. Although “electioneering” looks like an adjective, it is actually a noun that means political campaign. Like “sendoff,” it can’t properly be used before another noun. It usually stands alone in Standard English. That is, instead of saying “politicians always lie during electioneering campaigns,” it is sufficient to simply say “politicians always lie during electioneering.”

Another popular tautological expression in Nigerian English that I have called attention to in previous article is “free-for-all fight.” A free-for-all is a noisy street fight. Like sendoff and electioneering, it is also a noun that does not modify another noun. But I can understand why many Nigerians think “free-for-all” as an adjective; it looks like a compound modifier, which its’ not.

Concluding thoughts
In all natural languages, tautologies are inevitable. We all commit tautologies either consciously or unconsciously. I am sure I’ve committed quite a few in this write-up. Tautologies sometimes help give clarity to our thoughts. At other times they intensify, reinforce, and accentuate the messages we seek to convey. They can also be used for literary, aesthetic,  stylistic, and humorous effects. Yet, they can be products of laziness and sloppy thinking.

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When Democracy Makes No Sense

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I was writing my reflections on the consequences of the embarrassingly infantile electoral banditry exhibited by Nigeria’s governors during the last Nigerian Governors’ Forum election when it occurred to me that I had written a similar article on April 21, 2007 titled “Is this democracy?” in the wake of the mindlessly rigged governorship election that year.  I am taking the liberty to share the article with my readers. It has been edited for space. Except for the dates and personalities nothing has changed. Enjoy.

I think we need to start seriously questioning some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about democracy. Since the collapse of state socialism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, “democracy” has emerged as the unchallenged, unquestioned form of government that every nation is either forced to adopt or aspires to emulate voluntarily.

For us in Nigeria, our nightmarish experience with incredibly venal, reactionary, and enfeebling military absolutism has especially made “democracy” an appealing attraction. Predictably, democracy has now become what scholars of rhetorical studies would call a “charismatic term”— that is, an abstract, often meaningless and empty, concept that nonetheless carries the greatest blessing in a culture and that demands sacrifice and obedience.

Today, to be labeled “anti-democratic” is almost worse than being called a murderer. Politicians now confer legitimacy on their actions—and inactions— by invoking the name of “democracy.”

But is this what we bargained for? No serious person in Nigeria contests the fact that the last eight years represent our country’s worst descent into the low-water mark of despair, hopelessness, and misery. We have witnessed the reversal of our time-honored national fortunes by at least 30 years.

It’s anybody’s guess if we can ever recover from this. For instance, when Obasanjo came to power in 1999, Nigeria generated over 3,000 megawatts of electricity. His government actually spent billions of naira to reverse this to about a thousand megawatts today! Our roads are in a worse state than they have ever been since independence. Security is at its lowest ebb. And poverty now prowls proudly and menacingly in most homes to the delight of Obasanjo and his slew of sinister crooks who call themselves “reformers.”

For eight years, a thieving, hypocritical, and incompetent cabal has held our country hostage, viciously raped our resources, traumatized our people, pillaged our patrimony, and murdered our dreams in the name of democracy.

And this same baleful, felonious cabal is entrenching institutional structures to guarantee the intergenerational perpetuation of their criminality and the exclusion of other segments of the society through systematic, state-sponsored vote rigging.

Ordinary Nigerians are cruelly denied even the most basic guarantee of liberal democracy: periodic leadership change through the ballot. Last Saturday, Obasanjo and his gang of criminals in government once again manipulated the governorship and state houses of assembly elections and denied us even the luxury to dream about the future of our country.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, which is anything but independent, announced predetermined election results. Now there is outrage and violence everywhere—and justifiably so. We all know that this Saturday’s presidential and National Assembly elections have already been preset even before they have taken place. Why should anybody go out to vote? For good reason, Nigerians are progressively losing faith in the electoral process and, in fact, in democracy itself.

What is worse, perhaps, is that billions that should have been used to fix our decaying infrastructure and institute basic economic liberties for the masses of our people are being expended on these fraudulent elections. And the last thing on the minds of the beneficiaries of this fraud is the common good of the country. Democracy, for many of them, is merely a gateway for easy personal enrichment.

When I think about this, I can’t help wondering sometimes whether we really need this democracy at this stage of our development. It’s a wasteful, inept system that throws up all kinds of mediocre characters and wily murderers in power. It has become a system that only expands the stealing and killing fields.

Think of the president and his numberless coterie of redundant and unproductive assistants, advisers and hangers-on. Ditto the vice president and the ministers. This thriftlessness is replicated at the state and local government levels. Then you have the absolutely otiose legislators at all levels of government with their strings of even more otiose aides, assistants, advisers and so on, all sustained by scarce national resources that should be invested in education, infrastructural development, agriculture, welfare programs, etc.

And then think of the needless deaths and destruction that accompany all elections. Even our president defined elections as a “do or die” affair. In reality, however, it’s a do AND die affair!

The truth is that democracy, all over the world, has never been the cause of prosperity; it’s always the consequence of prosperity. The United States, Britain, and all other Western countries did not become prosperous because they were democratic; they became democratic after they were prosperous.

Recent examples can be found in the so-called Asian Tigers. The current wave of democratization in the region was preceded by what has been called “developmental dictatorship.”

I know my critique of democracy exposes me to charges of advocating the return of the military. But that’s not my point. I will be the last person to advocate that, even though I believe in my heart that what we currently have is not in any way superior to military absolutism.

If the present system had the capacity to invest Nigerians with the power to change leadership through the ballot box, I would be willing to concede that the system at least has a redeeming feature. But that’s not the case. Like in the military era, we are stuck with the same visionless, unpatriotic, and larcenous cabal, however much we may hate their rotten guts.

Some people think what we need is a patriotic, transaction-oriented, incorruptible, and developmental vanguard of leaders in the mold of a Muhammadu Buhari of old, or a Murtala Muhammed, or even a Ghadaffi.

But this suggestion is fraught with many problems and contradictions. Who will that person be in the Nigeria of today? And, worst still, how will he or she emerge? Through the electoral process that has already been hijacked by Obasanjo and his cronies? Just how?

I honestly don’t know. These are just the rambling discursive gymnastics of a tormented and frustrated deterritorialized mind. But I feel an emotionally purging sensation after writing this.

First published in Weekly Trust of June 8, 2013

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