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Q and A on Titles, Grammaticality of “Treasonable Felony” and Other Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi I have a backlog of unanswered questions from several weeks ago to which I hope...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

I have a backlog of unanswered questions from several weeks ago to which I hope to respond in the coming weeks. This week, I answered questions on the grammaticality of the term “treasonable felony,” on the use of titles such as “comrade” and “Dr.,” on Nigerian English expressions such as “recharge cards,” and other usage issues. Enjoy.

Please I need you to help clarify the term/concept "treasonable felony." I’ve heard it used several times by many Nigerian commentators. Recently the SSS accused the former NSA of allegedly committing “treasonable felony.”

“Treasonable felony” is a uniquely Nigerian English expression that also occasionally appears in Ghanaian English. No other variety of English in the world uses the expression. A check on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English confirms this. Of the 52 matches that appeared in the corpus, 43 showed up in Nigerian English and 9 in Ghanaian English. There was no record for the expression in all other English varieties the corpus indexes.

In Standard English, “treason” means the crime of wanting to overthrow a legitimately constituted government through violent, unconstitutional means. Felony, on the other hand, means any serious crime, such as murder, arson, treason, etc. In American law, it is customary to classify crimes as either felonies (which typically attract harsh punishments like the death sentence, life imprisonment, or prison sentences lasting more than a year) or misdemeanors (which are minor offenses that are punished with fines or prison sentences that last a year or less).  In other words, “treasonable felony” would be considered needless verbosity in native English varieties since “treason” is itself a felony.

 But Nigerian law differentiates between “treason” and “treasonable felony.” According to section 37(1) of the Criminal Code Act, “treason” occurs when someone actually wages a war, or conspires with any person to wage a war, against the country “in order intimidate or overawe the president or the governor of a state,” and it is punishable by death. “Treasonable felony,” on the other hand, Section 41 of the Criminal Code tells us, is an “intention” to commit treason.

That distinction makes no logical or grammatical sense, but it has been in Nigerian law books for as long as Nigeria has existed. I think it should be accepted—and defended— as a legitimate Nigerian English expression. There are a thousand and one expressions in Standard English that also make no logical or grammatical sense.

You are probably not aware that several discussion groups have been formed around your columns. I’m a member of one such discussion group, which debated the title “Dr.” Between a medical doctor and a Ph.D. holder who is more deserving of prefixing the title “Dr.” to their name? What do the world’s newspaper style guides say about this? I know our own Guardian in Nigeria had a “Simply Mr” policy. Without context, it can be hard to tell a medical doctor from a PhD holder if people are simply called “Dr.”

That’s an excellent question. By convention, both medical doctors and PhDs can prefix “Dr.” to their names. But, here, there is a clash between etymology (origin and development of words) and pragmatics (how words are actually used by speakers of a language). The word “doctor” was historically used for teachers because it’s derived from the Latin verb docēre, which means “to teach.”  So “doctor of philosophy” meant “teacher of philosophy,” where “philosophy” meant what we now know as sciences and humanities, that is, disciplines other than law, medicine, and theology. 

In contemporary uses, however, people tend to first think of medical doctors before PhDs when the term “doctor” is mentioned. For instance, when I visited home after completing my PhD here, several of my mother’s friends came to ask that I give them medicines for all sorts of illnesses. When they heard that I had become a “doctor,” they assumed that I was a medical doctor. I will never forget my mother’s response to her friends. She said, “This doctor doesn’t treat illnesses; he cures ignorance.” She said this even when she didn’t know that, etymologically, “doctor” meant one who teaches, in other  words, one who cures ignorance, although  I think it’s a bit arrogant to assume that anyone one person, however knowledgeable,  can cure all ignorance—or that  you need a doctorate to cure ignorance.

But the point is that modern usage associates “Dr.” more with medical practitioners than it does with Ph.Ds.

That’s why the New York Times style guide reserves “Dr.” only for medical doctors, and uses “Mr.” for doctoral degree holders. If the doctoral degree holder’s qualification is relevant to the story, the paper would write something like, “Mr. Smith, who has a doctorate in physics, said…” Other American newspapers suffix “PhD” to the names of doctoral degree holders in news reports, as in, “John Smith, Ph.D., said it was unwise to let that happen.”

I would like to know if the word "comrade" can be used as a title. Apart from Nigeria I have never heard of a country where people formally prefix “Comrade” to their names.

Comrade as a title isn't exclusive to Nigeria. It's used in place of conventional courtesy titles like "Mr.," "Miss," "Mrs.," etc. by communists, socialists, and freedom fighters. However, with the collapse of state socialism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, the title has declined in usage and popularity. But many trade unionists all over the English-speaking world still prefix “comrade” to their names.

While British and Nigerian English speakers pronounce the word as /komreid/, American English speakers pronounce it as /komrad/.

Is the phrase “recharge card” not correct English? I ask because I heard one local writer saying that “phone card” is the right phrase to be used instead.

There is nothing wrong with saying "recharge card." Although it is more common in Nigerian English than in any variety of English, "recharge card" is used in other English varieties, including native varieties like New Zealand English and Australian English. I even found one record of its use in Canadian English when I checked the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

 Nevertheless, the most universally understood alternative expressions for "recharge cards" are "prepaid phone cards" or “prepaid calling cards.” In advanced industrial societies like the US and the UK, prepaid phone cards are used only by foreign visitors. Citizens and permanent residents of these countries pay one-off monthly phone bills. That’s why neither “recharge cards” nor “prepaid phone cards” are popular with the general population in these countries. Language reflects people’s material reality.

Is it wrong to pluralize father's day as fathers' day?

It isn't wrong, but it's officially called "Father's Day," suggesting that it's a day for people to individually celebrate their fathers. The same rule applies to "Mother's Day." But it is “workers’ day,” not “worker’s day,” since the day is dedicated to celebrating workers collectively, not individually.

Is it grammatical to write this: Ayo is a BS holder? Or Ayo is a Ph.D holder?

I would say "Ayo has a B.S. (or BSc.) in ..." Or "Ayo is a BS (or BSc.) degree holder" (sounds rather clumsy but it's grammatical). It is more traditional, at least in America, to say "Ayo is a Ph.D." Or “Ayo has a Ph.D."  If you want to be windy, you might say "Ayo is a Ph.D. degree holder."

Which is correct? 1. I got that correctly. 2. I got that correct.

Both are correct depending on what you mean. Number 1 is correct if your focus is on the action, that is, "getting" it. Number 2 is correct if your focus is on the “what," that is, that which you got correct.

Number 1 is an adverbial construction where the focus is on the action, that is, on the verb. Number 2 is an adjectival construction where the focus is on the noun, which is implied in your sentence.  My sense is that you probably mean you got the answer right, which means “I got that correct” is what you want to say. Notice that I didn’t write “you got the answer rightly” because my focus is on the “answer” rather than on “getting” it.

I want to know the grammaticality of the expression, "Why President Buhari has yet to move to Aso Rock." I thought it should be, " yet to..."

Both expressions are correct and mean exactly the same thing, but "has yet to" is now more common among native English speakers.

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