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“My Names Are,” “Comity of States,” and Other “Ministerial Screening” Grammatical Murders

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi I didn’t follow the live broadcast of the recent senate confirmation hearing (or...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

I didn’t follow the live broadcast of the recent senate confirmation hearing (or what the Nigerian media and social media commentariat call “ministerial screening”) of President Buhari’s ministerial nominees, but scores of readers of this column peppered me with questions on the several grammatical bloopers committed by senators and ministerial nominees during the hearing.

I was initially disinclined to write on the blunders for at least two reasons. One, I had written about many of them in the past, and I thought anyone who was interested in finding out should use the search box on my blog or the Daily Trust website. Second, I thought it was unfair to pillory the grammatical infractions of people who were speaking under pressure since, in any event, in speech, we don’t usually have the deliberateness, forethought, and self-correction that we bring to bear when we write.

Nevertheless, when I realized that the senate confirmation hearing enjoyed a massive social media blitz and inspired frenzied online chatter, especially by young people who look up to older people, including politicians, for direction on language use, I thought this is probably a good time to once again call attention to some of these errors I had written about, which some people missed.

 Plus, many of the errors my readers called my attention to are not simple errors of carelessness; they are errors of ignorance. More importantly, I read many people arguing back and forth over the correctness of some of the expressions I isolate below. Several people tagged me and requested my intervention. I couldn’t respond to all of the inquiries I received, so I think it’s appropriate to highlight and discuss some of them.

1. “My names are.” I was told that several senators (or is it ministerial nominees; forgive me because I didn’t watch the whole live or recorded broadcast) introduced themselves by saying, “my names are….” Well, as I have written in several articles, that’s illiterate English.

The conventional expression is “my name is” irrespective of the number of names of you have. As I wrote as recently as three weeks ago, contemporary native English speakers don’t introduce themselves by saying “my names are.” “Name” is a single unit and refers both to one’s first name alone and to one’s first, (middle), and last names combined. So the socially normative and grammatically acceptable way to introduce yourself is to either say “My name is Aliyu” or “My name is Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko.” The fact of the addition of “Magatakarda” and “Wamakko” to “Aliyu” doesn’t require that you to pluralize “name” to “names” to have “My names are Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko.”

The only occasion under which the phrase “my names are” might be justified is if you have legally changed your names many times in the past, like criminals do, and didn’t take care  to also legally invalidate the  previous name changes. Let me give an example of what I mean.

 Maybe when you were born your name was Adamu Musa Ilyasu. When you became a teenager, however, you committed a crime for which you went to jail. When you came out of jail, you wanted to escape from your past, so you changed your name to Oluwale James Emeka. But, as years passed by, you decided to run for office in Sokoto where a name like Oluwale James Emeka is a cultural and electoral liability, so you again legally changed your name to Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko.

But then things came full circle and you were caught in the web of the elaborate deceit you have woven around your life. During questioning by the police, you might say, “my names are Adamu Musa Ilyasu, Oluwale James Emeka, and Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko,” especially if the name changes were done legally and previous names were not legally invalidated.

That’s a very far-fetched scenario. In other words, there will almost never be any need or occasion for anyone to ever correctly say “my names are.”

2. “Comity of states.” In justifying why he built a new government house in Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who might be Nigeria’s next foreign affairs minister, said, among other things, “We have a duty to be respected and regarded in the comity of states.”

“Comity of states” is, of course, extended from the fixed expression “comity of nations,” which is itself routinely misused in Nigerian English. In my April 13, 2014 article titled “12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English,” I wrote: “[Comity of nations] is often used in Nigerian English, especially in official Nigerian English, where ‘community of nations’ [or international community] would do.

“‘Comity of nations’ is a fixed phrase that means the ‘courteous respect by one nation for the laws and institutions of another.’ It basically means the respect that nations have for each other’s sovereignty. ‘Comity’ means harmony, so comity of nations means harmony of nations, not a collection of nations. Unfortunately, ‘comity of nations’ has been misused even in Nigerian presidential speeches delivered at international arenas.

“On the website of the Nigerian Embassy in the USA, the following sentence appears: ‘Within that period too, Nigeria gradually regained her voice in the comity of nations.’ You would think that people whose exposure to and knowledge of the practices and registers of international relations are considered worthy enough to be appointed to represent Nigeria in the United States would know enough to know that ‘community of nations’ is the right phrase to use in the sentence above.”

Dr. Fayemi is an international relations expert who should be familiar with the concept of “comity of nations.” I am surprised that even he confused “community” with “comity.” I hope he reads this article and never goes to say something like “Nigeria’s position in the comity of nations” at international events when he becomes minister of foreign affairs. “Comity” and “community” kind of sound alike, but they mean two completely different things.

3. “Knowing fully well.” Some people called my attention to the use of the expression “knowing fully well,” instead of “know full well,” during the confirmation hearings. Well, I won’t gripe too much about that.

As I wrote in an April 7, 2013 article, the standard expression is “full well.” But “full well” is only a surviving linguistic remnant of early Modern English in contemporary English. That means outside of the expression “full well,” “full” can’t be used as an adverb. For instance, it would be wrong to say “he was full loaded.” That should correctly be “he was fully loaded.”

Why is this so? Before and during Shakespeare’s time, people used “full” as an intensifying adverb almost the same way we use “really” today.  For instance, in Henry VIII, Shakespeare wrote: “Anger is like a full hot horse.” A modern writer would write this sentence as, “Anger is like a really hot horse.” But the sense of “full” as an intensifier in the class of “really” has survived only in a few fixed expressions like “(know) full well,” the Shakespearean phrase “full fathom five,” and in the phrase “full many a...” (such as in the sentence “full many a glorious morning I have seen”).

So, in idiomatic English, “full well” is more acceptable than “fully well.” But many people now just say “you know really well” or simply “you know” unless they want to show off their esoteric erudition and mastery of idiomatic English.

Obsolete words that are still used in contemporary English because they are frozen in idiomatic expressions are called “fossil words.” So “full well” is a fossil expression.

4. “States who…” In making a case for states to have their own police, former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola said, “States who want to run state police….” It is improper grammar to use the relative pronoun “who” for non-human subjects; “which” and “that” are the preferred pronouns when reference is made to non-human entities. So it should be “states that want to…”

I would not have bothered with this but for the fact that in Nigerian secondary school English language exams, any student who uses the relative pronoun “who” for a non-human subject will lose points, and we will all turn around and bewail the declining numbers of people who get credit passes in “O” level English.

5. “Ministerail.” The official communication from President Muhammadu Buhari to Senate President Bukola Saraki requesting the confirmation of ministerial nominees misspelled “ministerial” as “ministerail.” Any wonder that the “ministerail” confirmation hearing was an exercise in grammatical murders? I also discovered that many Nigerians on social media misspell ministerial as “ministarial.” What’s up with that?

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