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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” ...

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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