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Response to the Critique of my Critique of Buhari’s Inaugural Speech

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi A certain A.M. Mainasara who curiously used a plural pronominal self-reference ( i...

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A certain A.M. Mainasara who curiously used a plural pronominal self-reference ( i.e., “we”) took issue with my critique of President Buhari’s inaugural speech in a July 12, 2015 letter to the editor titled “Dr. Farooq’s Critique of President Buhari’s Inauguration Speech.” I have chosen to respond to the critique not because I think I am beyond reproach (as I’ve stated here several times, I too am fallible), but because I will betray the pedagogic intent of this column if I let several of the inaccurate claims of the writer to go unchallenged.

I don’t know on whose behalf Mainasara wrote, but his use of the majestic plural “we” suggests that he either wrote on behalf of Buhari’s speech writers or he thought himself too important to use a singular pronominal self-reference. If the former is true, I want to assure him that my intention was not to pillory the president’s speech writers. As I said in the original article, I isolated the grammatical and usage slips in the speech “not to ridicule the writers of the speech, but to guide people who might, out of innocence, hold up the speech as the paragon of a well-written, grammatically correct and complete speech.”

I subjected several of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s public speeches to grammatical analyses, as readers of this column know only too well. So I wasn’t picking on President Buhari’s speech writers. In what follows I address the issues raised by Mainasara. I will ignore his obliquely sarcastic ad hominem digs at me and address the substance of his critique.

1. Mainsara wrote: “May I suggest to Dr Farooq that the style, grammar and character of a public speech is very very different from a sixth form essay or even a University degree English language exam. In public speaking you take liberties with language, grammar, syntax etc for effect, for emphasis and for brevity.”

So a public speech is different from a sixth-form essay or a university degree English exam? Wow! What a revelation!! Who would have thought it?

Seriously, though, it is entirely false that public speeches, especially inaugural speeches, can “take liberties with language, grammar, syntax etc” for any reason—if by liberties Mainasara means being slipshod and being immune from adhering to formal usage norms. If the reader would indulge my immodesty a bit, I took courses in rhetorical theory and criticism in my doctoral studies where I studied public address, especially presidential inaugural speeches from George Washington’s inaugural address to Obama’s. A lot of thought and effort go into writing inaugural addresses, the kind I don’t expect to see in Nigeria given that English isn’t native to us. I neither have the space nor the inclination to write about the rhetoric and conventions of inaugural speeches; it suffices to say, however, that Mainasara wasn’t faithful to the facts when he said public speeches free people from the obligations to be grammatically correct and complete.

2.  The writer took issue with my critique of the phrase “in rain” in the president’s address. I said “in the rain” is more idiomatic than “in rain.” In refuting my claim, he reproduced a passage from Shakespeare where “in rain” appears ("In thunder, lightning or in rain?").

I admit that fussing over the grammatical propriety of the phrase “in rain” is pettifoggery. So the writer was right to call my objection a “quibble,” except that this is a specialist column that obsesses over several minutiae of grammar and usage.

Having said that, there are problems with Mainasara’s contrast of contexts. First, English has significantly evolved since Shakespeare’s time. There are several usage conventions that were perfectly permissible in Shakespeare’s time that are now taboos. Great examples are the double superlative (such as “most tallest”) and the double comparative (such as “more taller”).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony characterizes the injury inflicted upon Caesar by Brutus as the “most unkindest cut of all.” In modern English, “most unkindest cut” would be written either as “most unkind cut” or as “unkindest cut.”

There are several other Shakespearean expressions that are ungrammatical by the standards of modern English. In the coming weeks, I will dedicate a column to isolating expressions that appear in Shakespeare’s oeuvre that are considered illiterate by the standards of modern English grammar. The point is that language evolves, its norms and conventions mutate, and you can’t always use the standards of a past era to defend usage choices in a present era.

A search through the corpora of contemporary English usage (such as the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English) shows that “in the rain” is clearly now the preference of a majority of native English speakers. In fact, “in the rain,” and “singin’ in the rain” are the titles of a popular song and a historic movie respectively.

Finally, Mainasara wrote: “In the unavoidable absence of William Shakespeare, perhaps Farooq Kperogi Ph.D will request Oxford, Cambridge or Trinity College, Dublin, the three Universities [that] are guardians of the English Language to agree that Shakespeare should have written.”

Sorry, Mainasara, but the English language has no formal guardians. Oxford and Cambridge university presses publish dictionaries, but they are no guardians of the language.  The meanings of words in their dictionaries constantly change in response to changes in popular usage. One of the distinctions of the English language, about which many native English speakers brag, is that, unlike French and other European languages, it has no formal authority to police or adjudicate usage.
A friend sent me a snapshot of the letter. I couldn't find it on Trust's website

3. The writer says, “Social media is common parlance, like newspapers so whether you qualify the phrase with the the or not is immaterial.” This, frankly, isn’t worthy of a response because it says nothing, but I will respond anyway. There is a world of difference between “the social media” and “social media.” The former refers to an antecedent and the latter is generic. Saying “people in the social media” would cause any educated English speaker to ask “which social media?” because the definite article “the” indicates that a specific social media type is being referred to. The bulk of my academic research is on social media. I have never come across any scholar write or say “the social media” when referring to social media in a generic sense. Mainasara invokes no authority to back up his defense; he merely says it is right because he wants it to be right. That’s not the way language works.

4. Mainasara relies on the second definition of “brethren” given in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to defend the usage of the word in a presidential inaugural speech. There is something called pragmatics in linguistics that Mainasara would do well to acquaint himself with. It means how language is actually used. Dictionaries list all possible meanings of words, including the obsolescent meanings of the words. Pragmatics helps the user to determine which meaning is in use, and which is going out of currency. In no modern English prose, especially of the status and importance of a presidential inaugural speech, is “brethren” used in place of “people who are part of the same society as yourself.” Interestingly, all the dictionaries on my desk don’t have this definition.

Plus, a search through the corpora of contemporary English usage shows that “brethren” is mostly used to refer to lay members of male Christian religious sects. If you have no access to corpora, simply type “brethren” on Google and see how it’s used.

 The writer asked if we should avoid the use of "mankind" and "Sons of Adam" since I said “brethren” sounds sexist and exclusionary. Well, the answer is yes.  Modern native English speakers no longer say “mankind”; they say “humankind” or simply “humans.” “Sons of Adam” isn’t a common expression among native English speakers. If it were, it would be rendered as “sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.”

The point is, over the past few years, English has moved toward greater gender neutrality. That’s why TIME magazine’s famous “Man of the Year” award has been changed to “Person of the Year” award. “Man” is no longer the generic referent for “human” in English, just as “he” is no longer the generic pronoun for all humans.

When Louis Armstrong said, “one small step for man; one giant step for mankind” he was merely reflecting the prevailing grammatical conventions of his time. If he were to say the same thing now, he would most certainly say, “one small step for a human; one giant step for humankind.” It would interest the reader to know that Armstrong actually wanted to say “one small step for a man,” but he slipped up and omitted the indefinite article “a.”

5. Sentence fragments are acceptable in poetry or in simulations of dialogic exchanges where antecedents help complete the sense in fragments, but not in formal, conventional prose. Winston Churchill’s speech that Mainasara cited was written in verse, so it’s poetry. The example he gave from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech was a simulation of dialogic exchange. So his contrast of contexts is imperfect.

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