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Aisha Buhari, Grammar Error Types, and Response to Critics

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Last week’s column titled “Aisha Buhari’s Embarrassing Grammatical Infelicities ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Last week’s column titled “Aisha Buhari’s Embarrassing Grammatical Infelicities at USIP” elicited three familiar and predictable kinds of responses. (For the record, the Aisha Buhari speech I analyzed last week was delivered at George Mason University at Fairfax, Virginia, not at the United States Institute of Peace. My apologies.)

The responses ranged from enthusiastic expressions of approval of the column and commendations to me for having the courage to be evenhanded in using the grammatical bungles of public officials to call attention to popular usage errors, to protestations that clarity of meaning trumps grammatical correctness, to declarations that no one is immune from errors, and to fulmination that excessive concern with English grammar is evidence of lingering “colonial mentality” or “inferiority complex.”

I will address these concerns, as I’ve done in the past when similar responses accompanied my censure of the grammatical bloopers of high-profile Nigerians.

Does clarity of meaning trump grammatical correctness? Maybe. But that may be true only where poor grammar doesn’t interfere with meaning itself. When someone refers to a current democratically elected administration as a “recent regime,” for instance, both meaning and grammar are hurt. Plus, eye-catching grammatical errors have the unintended effect of detracting from the message a speaker—or writer—intends to transmit.

Most importantly, though, this is a grammar column. My sole preoccupation in this column is to write about grammar and usage. People who are discomfited by that have the option to not read it.

Everyone Makes Mistakes
It’s true that everyone makes mistakes. I, too, make mistakes. I have said that many times here. For instance, in a February 5, 2010 column titled “Hypercorrectionin Nigerian English,” I wrote: “Well, no one is immune from errors when it comes to the English language. As Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland aptly observed in their book, The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy, ‘English is a slippery language, strewn with homonymic banana peels, slapstick mondegreens, and tongue twisters. Even fluent speakers of English constantly make mistakes.’.”

If everyone makes mistakes, why do I sometimes isolate other people’s mistakes for censure? Well, it’s because there are different categories and degrees of intensity of errors.

There are two broad types of errors that people are liable to commit in writing—and sometimes in speech. These are errors of carelessness and errors of ignorance.

Errors of carelessness are often the product of negligence, insufficient time to thoroughly go over written work, or omissions that occur because the brain is working faster than the hand. There is a legendary example of an error of carelessness that occurred in a book title in 1967. Celebrated Canadian communication scholar Marshal McLuhan popularized the expression “the medium is the message.” But when he wrote a book using the expression, an error of carelessness interfered with his meaning. The book came out as, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects instead of The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. Message and massage are, of course, two different words. When the error was spotted, the damage had already been done.

In last week’s column I, too, made an error of carelessness when I wrote “sore thump” instead of “sore thumb.” I corrected the error on this blog, but not on the Daily Trust website. I’ve had cause to use the idiom (“stand out/stick out like a sore thumb”) at least six times in past articles (as a quick search on my blog and Daily Trust’s website shows), yet I interchanged “thumb” with “thump”—just like McLuhan unintentionally transposed “message” with “massage.”

Errors of ignorance, on the other hand, are errors that result from a clear lack of knowledge. When a writer repeats the same mistake several times in the same written material—or when a speaker doubles down on the same error in a single speech act, it is usually evidence that the error is actuated by ignorance, not carelessness.

When I give writing assignments to my students here in the US, I have a habit of giving them back their papers—without any correction from me— after a week. I then ask them to look over their writing again and point out any errors they discover. They usually catch their errors of carelessness, such as omissions and other proofreading errors—errors we are all liable to make, especially when we work under tight deadlines.

The other errors that remain in their papers after the self-editing exercise are taken as self-evident errors of ignorance. It is these errors of ignorance that I evaluate and correct. This saves me time (I don’t have to expend energies to correct errors that won’t benefit my students since they already know them), heightens students’ consciousness of the need for extreme care when they write, and generally enhances the learning experience.

The errors I highlighted in Aisha Buhari’s speech at George Mason University were errors of ignorance. For instance, she said “a solutions” two times in her speech.

I ignored her errors of carelessness, such as her saying “the international communities” instead of “the international community.” At several points in her speech, she correctly said “the international community,” so the one time that she said “the international communities” can only be the result of carelessness. She also pronounced the “h” in “honorable,” which is always silent in all varieties of English. I chalked it up to carelessness resulting from diffidence and public speaking anxiety.

English as Colonial Mentality?
People who dismiss English as “colonial mentality” lack self-reflexivity. The very name of our country, Nigeria, was handed to us by English colonialists, and it’s derived from English. More than 50 years after independence, we are still stuck with it. And people talk of English being a holdover of colonialism?

 Well, the response I gave to former President Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters who criticized my calling attention to his grammatical errors when he visited the United States in 2010 is still relevant.

Here is an abridged version:

“Jonathan's problem during his visit here wasn't merely one of avoidably appalling grammar and unmentionable protocol blunders; it was also one of a disturbing deficiency of substance in his speeches and interviews. That anybody would excuse, tolerate, and even celebrate this presidential mediocrity is disturbing. I only hope we will democratize this new-found toleration for presidential mediocrity and extend it to every subsequent occupant of Aso Rock irrespective of geographic and ethnic origins.

“People who think I was obsessed with Jonathan’s grammar and comportment (and I pointed out only three grammatical slips, although he hardly uttered a word that wasn’t a mockery of the English language) fail to realize that the whole point of his trip to America was to impress Americans and buy himself—and Nigeria—some legitimacy in the process. He didn’t come here to govern Nigeria. So judging his performance in terms of his eloquence, grammatical correctness, substance, etc. is fair game.

“Some people charge that I am somehow being ‘neo-colonial’ in insisting that Jonathan and any other leader speak acceptable English when they represent us abroad. My critics say French, Korean, Chinese, etc. leaders speak their native languages and get foreign language translators to interpret for them when they travel abroad. Fair enough. But do the French, Koreans, Chinese, etc. use English as the language of instruction all levels of their education, in their courts, and in their mass media? Do they use it as the language of government, indeed, as the “official” language of their countries?

“No! Well, we do in Nigeria. So citing those examples is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts. In Nigeria, you can't proceed to institutions of higher education if you don't have a credit in English—even if you want to study mathematics or, for that matter, a Nigerian language! [Y]ou can't acquire post-secondary school qualification in Nigeria if you don't have a credit in English.

“Goodluck Jonathan presumably passed ‘O’ level English before proceeding to study for a bachelor’s degree, a master's and then a PhD. Yet he committed errors that should prevent anybody from passing ‘O’ level English. [Aisha Buhari is supposed to have a master’s degree].

“In any case, most of us so-called educated Africans have abysmally low levels of proficiency in our native languages, unlike citizens of the countries cited above. We learn and think in the languages of our former colonial overlords. That's a reality that no romantic, mushy "Africanism" can gloss over. [F]ew African leaders have sufficient proficiency in their languages to effectively communicate high-minded diplomatic thoughts in them…

“English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has 3 dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all the languages—it is practically impossible to impose any native language as a national language.

“So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate! I am not implying that African leaders should not speak their native languages when they travel abroad, but the truth is that if Obasanjo, Yar'adua, Jonathan—or any other Nigerian leader— were to choose to communicate in their native languages while representing Nigeria abroad, the backlash at home would be immense. It would alienate other people who don't speak their languages.”

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