Sunday, November 27, 2016

“Flag off,” “Going Rogue,” “General Secretary”: Q and A On English Usage and Expressions

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

I want to find out if the phrasal verb “flag off” exists in all varieties of English, as in, “flag off campaign on immunization program.” Or is it just Nigerian English?

The use of “flag off” to mean officially open a ceremonial event is probably old-fashioned British English because it appears only in the varieties of English spoken by former British colonies, notably Nigerian English and Indian English. It’s unknown in American English and in contemporary British English. Nor is it present in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English.

A search of the database of the Corpus of GlobalWeb-Based English shows that the expression occurs mostly in Nigerian English with 33 matches. Indian English is a close second with 26 matches. It appeared 23 times in Malaysian English, 17 times in Singaporean English, 6 times in Tanzanian English, 5 times in Kenyan English, and so on. I’d call it a non-British Commonwealth English expression.

I have read people describe Aisha Buhari’s recent BBC interview as “going rogue.” Isn’t that an insult since a rogue means a deceitful and unreliable person?

It is true that “rogue” can mean a rascal, but that’s not the word’s only meaning. It can also mean a “pleasantly mischievous person” and can be used as a modifier before a noun to suggest that the noun so modified is unorthodox, such as the expression “rogue states.”

“Going rogue” isn’t exactly an insult; it merely means bucking convention, showing independence in thought and action, or refusing to act an expected script. You won’t find this meaning of the phrase in dictionaries or books of idioms because it isn’t yet well-established. But the expression was popularized, but by no means invented, in American English by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin whose autobiography titled “Going Rogue: An American Life” chronicles what she said was her resistance to conventions in politics.

Given the frequency of the expression in American English, I expect that it will become idiomatic in the next few years.

In our association we use “Secretary General” to refer to one who is third in the hierarchy of ranks in the association and takes care of all the documents of the association. But when I joined another association I discovered that they use “General Secretary” to refer to the same person. Which one is grammatically correct? Is there any context in which both will be correct?

The short answer is, there is really no difference between “Secretary General” and “General Secretary” that is founded on grammatical logic. Some organizations prefer “General Secretary” while others prefer “Secretary General.” However, here are what some experts say are the differences between the two terms:

1. “Secretary General” is used mostly for international organizations, such as the UN, while “General Secretary” is used for national, domestic or regional organizations. But there are several examples that disprove this false dichotomy.

2. “Secretary General” is often the substantive head, i.e. CEO, of an organization while the “General Secretary” is often the head of administration of an organization who is subordinate to a president or someone with ultimate executive powers. But this is not true of all cases. The Communist Party in the former USSR used to be headed by a “General Secretary” who doubled as the president of the country.

Here is the real linguistic difference between the terms: “Secretary General” is a word order that is derived from the structure of Romance languages (such as Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.), and “General Secretary” is derived from the word order of Germanic languages such as German, English, Dutch, etc.

Although English is a Germanic language, it tends to privilege the stylistic and grammatical idiosyncrasies of Romance languages, as a result of the influence of Latin and of Norman French on the language. Latin and French were associated with social and cultural prestige for many years in England. Therefore “Secretary General” appears to be more prestigious than “General Secretary.” Interestingly, the term “Secretary General” came to English by way of Norman French.

Bottom line: the difference between “Secretary General” and "General Secretary" is like the distinction between six and half a dozen. In other words, it's a distinction without a difference.

I was taught that “learned” is the wrong past tense for “learn” and that “learnt” is the only acceptable past tense. In addition, I was told that “learned” is only used for lawyers. What can you say about this?

“Learnt” and “learned” are both correct forms. "Learned" is the preferred past tense of “learn” in American English while “learnt” is the word’s preferred past tense in British English. Both are legitimate.

But note that there is “learned” (pronounced as /Le(R)-nid, / which refers to the idea of being knowledgeable such as lawyers like to think they are), and there is “learned” (pronounced as /le(R)nd, / which is the past tense of learn). Same spelling, different meanings.

I would like to ask two questions:

1. “Gerund” is a grammatical term that usually confuses me. I would like to know if this grammar term (and its examples) belongs to any part of speech or is different.

Like, is “reading” a noun? Or a verb? Or are we going to give it another part of speech: “gerund”?

2. The word “orientalist” also confuses me. It is being used by some Islamic scholars as “a word which denotes people who study Islam but distort its meaning.” However, the dictionary meaning does not reflect this. Which is right?

1. A gerund is a noun. That's the short answer. But it is a noun that is formed from a verb. If I say, “I am reading a book now,” “reading” is used as a verb. But if I say, “Reading is my favorite hobby,” “reading” would be a noun—or a gerund.

2. “Orientalists” study Eastern (or Oriental) cultures in general, of which Islam is a part. Because Orientalism started as an attempt by Westerners to understand the East without actually having a sustained experiential encounter with the cultures they wrote about, they were often inaccurate in their characterizations. So, over time, orientalism came to be associated with inaccurate, armchair, and prejudiced depictions of the Orient (or the East) by Western scholars.

This shift in meaning came after the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote an influential book in 1978 titled Orientalism, where he took Western Orientalist scholars apart. This semantic change may not be reflected in all dictionaries, but it is understood in academia.

I sent my questions for moderation to one English PhD holder thus: “Which of the two ethical perspectives considers intrinsic values?”  The moderator removed the “s” at end of the word “considers.” Is he right?

You are correct and he is wrong. Here is why: You could have phrased the question as, "Which (one) of the two ethical perspectives considers..." and the concord would have been clearer. Your question implies that there are two options, and only one option can apply at a time. That means the verb “considers” should be singular since only one option can be correct at a time.

I had an argument with my colleagues at school over which of the following options is correct. Please help us resolve this: “The principal invited Garba and---to his office.
A) myself
(B) me
(C) I
(D) himself

The answer is B, that is, “me.”  Remember this: Garba and I= we; Garba and me= us.  “The principal invited we” is an odd construction. “The principal invited us” sounds better.

Some British English speakers like to say “myself” to avoid having to use either “I” or “me” because even native English speakers have trouble knowing when to use both pronouns correctly. I predicted in previous articles that the distinction between “you and me” and “you and I” will disappear in the next generation.

Related Articles:
Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fake Trump Quotes about Nigerians and Africans

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

There are scores of fake quotes about Nigerians and Africans attributed to Donald Trump that have fooled many otherwise intelligent people. On April 9, 2016 I wrote an article titled, “Trump is a Bigot but He Never Said Anything against Nigerians” to dispel the ridiculously false statements Trump allegedly made against Nigerians.

On November 11, 2016, BBC also did a story titled, “Mythbuster: What Donald Trump didn't say about Africa,” which basically said Trump never said anything about Africans. In spite of this, prominent, educated Nigerians continue to fall victim to fake news stories about what Trump allegedly said about Nigerians and Africans.

Even Professor Wole Soyinka, in a recent write-up, appeared to believe the fake quote attributed to Trump about Nigerians and Africans. So does the prolific northern Nigerian writer Dr. Aliyu Tilde, who repeated the falsehood in a recent Facebook status update.

In view of the resilience of the fake Trump quotes about Nigerian—and Africans— I have decided to republish my article on this issue in hopes that more people will learn that Trump never said anything about Nigerians or Africans. Enjoy:

Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump has become the favorite punching bag of Nigerians on the Internet. All manner of bizarre things are now attributed to him on dodgy, fringe Nigerian websites, and lots of credulous Nigerians believe them.

Here is a random sample of headlines from Nigerian websites: “Trump to Buhari - You Say Biafra Is a Joke, Compare Your Change with Corruption,” “WHERE IS THE CHANGE!!! DONALD TRUMP INSULTS NIGERIA ADMINISTRATION,” “Donald Trump throws heavy blow at Nigerian leaders.”
 In internet jargon, this is called clickbait—that is, intentionally false, provocative, or hyperbolic headlines designed to compel people to click on links so as to attract web traffic and advertising dollars to websites. Donald Trump has become the biggest anchor for clickbait on fraudulent Nigerian websites.

 Perhaps the most widely spread hoax about Trump in Nigerian cyber sphere is the “If-I-win-you-leave” meme. It’s been shared by traditional news sites like Leadership, AIT, and by many otherwise clearheaded social media influencers.

 Well, Donald Trump has never ever said he will deport Nigerians in America if he gets elected president. That was an internet hoax that began life as a satire and given wings by gullible, simpleminded Nigerian Internet users.

 In a January 8, 2016 post,, the American-based fact-checking website, said the quote attributed to Trump was false. “[…] Trump did not have a rally in Wichita, Kansas, as alleged by the above-quoted article, at any point in January 2016. The quote has also not been recorded by any major publications at any point. In sum, this is nothing more than yet another fictional quote falsely attributed to a politician,” Snopes said.

 I shared this clarification on my Facebook timeline on January 18 and hoped that people would stop sharing this transparently fake news. However, several Nigerians continue to peddle the falsehood that Donald Trump said he would deport Nigerians should he get elected president of the United States.

 I was particularly surprised when I found that as recently as April 1, 2016, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, a respected retired bureaucrat and Daily Trust columnist, shared the same discredited falsehood on his Facebook page. Several people who look up to him not only believed the hoax but continue to circulate and lend it credibility. That’s sad.

As I pointed out in January this year, one doesn’t even need any verification from any fact-checking site to know that the quote was a hoax. There are just too many red flags.

For starters, Nigerians aren't even numerically significant enough in the US to deserve Trump's attention. (As of 2013, according to Pew Research Center, there were only 228,000 Nigerians in the United States. That’s not a lot of people in a country of over 320 million people).

Secondly, there is no discernible reason why Trump would single out Nigerians for anything. In other words, no occasion called for Trump to focus his attention on Nigeria or Nigerians.

It's obvious why he singled out Muslims, Mexicans, and the Chinese for xenophobic verbal attacks. His outrageous statement about temporarily halting Muslim travel and immigration to the US was actuated by the Syrian refugee crisis AND the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. The attack, perpetrated by Muslims, ignited a debate here about Muslims, and Trump was reacting to that debate.

Hispanics are the largest minority group (and the fastest growing demographic group) in the US who share a common boundary with the United States. American conservatives have always been concerned about (illegal) immigration from Mexico (America’s next-door neighbor to the south) and other Latin American countries. Trump was merely playing to the American conservative gallery when he stereotyped Mexican immigrants in the United States as rapists, killers, and drug dealers.
China is America's biggest business partner to which it is greatly indebted, so Trump regularly punches the country in his speeches.

So why would he pick on Nigeria and Nigerians? Absolutely no reason.  Nigeria has zero consequence for America’s national interest. In fact, I doubt that Trump is even aware that there is a country called Nigeria.  

But, most importantly, every racist and obnoxious comment Trump has made since the beginning of his campaign has videographic corroboration. None of the websites that carried the "news" of his remarks against Nigerians showed a video clip. In this era of ever-present cameras it should stretch anyone's credulity that Trump would say something as stupid as saying he would violate his country's constitution by expelling citizens of another nation resident in the US for no apparent reason.

 If he actually said that, there would be a frenzied debate in the American and international media, (as there was when he said the stupid things he said about Muslims, Mexicans, and Chinese people), not necessarily because of the Nigerians he allegedly said he would expel, but because of the ignorance of the constitution that would betray—yet again. He would have been the butt of late-night jokes.

Additionally, I expect any averagely educated person to at least check the websites of American news organizations for corroboration before sharing the "news" of what Trump allegedly says. It doesn't take a lot to do that.

In all of this, what worries me the most, though, is the astonishing willingness of Nigerians to believe anything that is published on the Internet.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year Describes Trumpism and Buharism

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

You are probably already aware that Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is “post-truth.” It is an adjective, which the dictionaries define as "relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

In other words, the word signifies the demotion of verifiable empirical proofs and the elevation of feelings, biases, prejudices, etc. in the formulation of thought-processes and courses of action. The reality the word lexicalizes isn’t by any means new, but it’s a voguish new addition to our vocabulary.

“Post-truth” joins a long list of trendy words that capture the sense of instability and dislocation that has accompanied human progress in the last few decades. Words like “postmodern,” “post-Christian,” “post-structural,” “post-Marxist,” “post-feminism,” etc. have existed in the English lexicon, especially in academese (i.e., the distinctive language usage of scholars), for years. But they are no longer the awkward academic neologisms they were years ago; they are now crossing over to mainstream usage.

“Post-truth” most certainly derived etymological inspiration from the arcane language of humanities and social science scholars who seem enamored with the “post” prefix. But it is a useful concept to explain the dissolution of certainties, the explosion of settled narratives, and the stubborn persistence of wrong, mistaken, and patently false beliefs even in the face of what lawyers call clear evidentiary proofs.

It is telling that “post-truth’s” lexical birth was actuated by two politically consequential seismic shocks the world just experienced: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

"It's not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse," Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl told the AFP. "Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, 'post-truth' as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time. We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination."

Buharism’s Post-Truth Politics
It isn’t just Brexit and Trumpism that luxuriate in and exploit our emergent post-truth world; post-truthism is also the lifeblood of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration in Nigeria. In the face of its crying failures and ineptitude amid the worst economic crisis in recent memory, the administration is whipping up emotions, turning logic on its head, and doing so much unconscionable violence to truth and basic decency as a defense mechanism.

Lies, deceit, and mindless propaganda are now the oxygen of the Buhari administration. If you deprive it of lies, deceit, and mindless propaganda, it will suffocate and die.

And there is a shrinking but nonetheless potent corps of Buharists, especially in the Muslim north, who perpetually lie to themselves—and to others—to the point of believing their own lies that Buhari’s administration is the savior of the nation. For example, they believe their own—and the Buhari government’s— lies that Boko Haram has been “technically” defeated. The facts of the unceasing Boko Haram attacks in Borno State and the tragic spike in the murder of our soldiers there do nothing to change this narrative.

The fact that Nigerian soldiers have not been paid their legitimate salaries, not to talk of their allowances, for at least three months is hidden from the public by government’s propaganda machine and is dismissed as “untrue” by Buhari supporters blinded by the plague of post-truthism. So is the heartrending malnutrition among, and deaths of, internally displaced Boko Haram victims, especially children—and the sexual exploitation of their young women.

Buhari is hailed as “fighting corruption” even when no one has yet to be prosecuted for corruption more than one year after the government came to power—and when clear cases of corruption against the president’s own loyalists are brazenly swept under the carpet. Post-truthist Buharists almost always retort that “corruption is fighting back” when anybody calls attention to the invidious selectivity and insincerity in government’s so-called fight against corruption.

Buhari is still called a “man of integrity” even when it came to light that he didn’t tell Nigerians the truth when he claimed he was so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy his party’s presidential nomination form and had to take a bank loan. At the time he made the claim, at least two of his children were studying at UK universities.

The president had said in the past that he had no other house outside of the houses he had in Kaduna and Daura, but his partial, half-hearted asset declaration in 2015 said he has a house in Abuja. Only multi-millionaires and billionaires own homes in Abuja. Yet the president feigned that he was poor in order to win voters’ sympathy—and their donations.

He has repudiated even his most basic campaign promises, such as fully declaring his assets like the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua did, yet he is still touted as a “man of integrity.”

He is also called a “frugal” and “modest” man even when evidence shows that he is probably Nigeria’s most profligate president. He is, for instance, the first and only president to spend millions of naira to build a helipad for his exclusive use in his hometown, which will be useless after his presidency. He is the only president in recent memory who officially goes abroad for “holidays” while the vast majority of the people he governs writhe in agony as a consequence of his economy policies, and so on.

It is only post-truthism that can blind anybody to the truth that Buhari’s government is pushing Nigeria to the brink of the precipice, that he is not the poor person he said he was, that his claims to “integrity” “modesty” and “frugality” have no basis in evidence.

But for post-truthers, emotion is all that matters. Evidence is a pesky, expendable encumbrance.

Runners-up to Post-Truth
In what follows, I reproduce AFP’s story on the choice of “post-truth” as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Enjoy:

The runners-up for words of the year included the British term "Brexiteer" used for anti-EU advocates.

"Alt-right" also made the shortlist, defined as an ultra-conservative grouping in the United States "characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics and the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content".

Trump's appointment of anti-establishment media firebrand Steve Bannon, seen as a leader of the "alt-right" movement, as his chief of staff earlier this week has proved highly controversial.

Capturing the mood 
Oxford Dictionaries said the word "post-truth" had become "overwhelmingly" associated with politics.

Charlotte Buxton, associate editor at Oxford Dictionaries, said the term "caught the public imagination" in Britain and the US, with social networks playing a key role.

"It's tied in quite closely with the social media world now and how people are accessing their news," she told AFP.

"I think it reflects a trend of how emotion and individual reactions are becoming more and more important.

"People are restricting their news consumption to sources that don't claim to be neutral."
Social media networks, in particular Facebook, have come under fire since the US election for allowing "fake news" and misinformation to be widely shared.

Google and Facebook responded to the criticism Tuesday by pledging to cut off advertising revenue to fake news sites which some claim influenced the US vote.

The term "post-truth" is "reflective of the mood of the past 12 months," said Buxton, but it has been around for some time.

Oxford Dictionaries traced its first use to a 1992 essay by late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War.

"We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world," Tesich wrote.

"There is evidence of the phrase 'post-truth' being used before Tesich's article, but apparently with the transparent meaning 'after the truth was known' and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant," Oxford Dictionaries said.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Buhari’s Phantom $500M Donation to Clinton’s Campaign

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

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s emergence as America’s president-elect, fringe, dodgy, clickbaity Nigerian websites have invented a transparently fake but wildly viral story that President Muhammadu Buhari donated $500 million to the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign, and that this “fact” would strain relations between Nigeria and the United States next year when Trump is sworn in as president.

I initially ignored the story because I didn’t think anybody with even the littlest brain cell in their head would believe it. But the lie has now taken a life of its own; it is being shared and reshared on multiple social media platforms and has become a talking point in many online conversations. Many people, apparently, just assume the truth of this bewilderingly wild fabrication without a shred of evidence.

There are at least three reasons why this contemptible fib is not worth an inch of the web spaces on which it’s published. First, Hillary Clinton’s entire spending during the presidential campaign this year was less than $500 million. According to the (US) Federal Election Commission, Clinton spent $497.8 million throughout the 2016 presidential campaigns. Of this, $356,455,996 came from “contributions.” It is logically and mathematically impossible for one individual—or government— to contribute more money to a campaign than the campaign itself has received.

Second, foreigners are forbidden from contributing to political campaigns in the US. Here is what the Federal Election Commission says on its “Quick Answers to General Questions” page about this: “Can non-US citizens contribute? Foreign nationals are prohibited from making any contributions or expenditures in connection with any election in the U.S. Please note, however, that ‘green card’ holders (i.e., individuals lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the U.S.) are not considered foreign nationals and, as a result, may contribute.”

Third, $500 million isn’t 500,000 thousand naira. Any foreign financial transaction above $10,000 automatically sets off alarm bells here. A $500 million campaign donation from a foreign person or government to a US presidential candidate would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It would be all over the American news media.

When news broke in November 2008 that Obama’s paternal aunt, Zeituni Oyango, who lived in the US illegally, contributed just $265 to his campaign, his presidential bid suffered a rude shock. The money was immediately returned.

In any case, the Federal Election Commission limits the contribution an individual can make “per election to a Federal candidate or the candidate's campaign committee” to just $2,700. So no one individual can even contribute up to a million dollars, much less 500 million dollars, to a US political campaign.

“Holy Lies” of Religious Zealots
But how did this lie start? And who believes and peddles it? My exhaustive survey of websites and social media chatter shows that people who started and amplified this lie are people who nurse a religious grudge against Buhari and his government.

They, in addition, uncritically consume and excitedly share fake news stories and discredited conspiracy theories from ultra-racist, rightwing American websites that claim that Obama is a secret Muslim Jihadist who is in cahoots with Muslim leaders all over the world to undermine America and destroy Christianity. This group of simpletons believes that John Kerry’s recent visit to Nigeria where he met with northern Muslim leaders was in furtherance of Obama’s sly Islamic expansionist agenda.

 In their warped, impoverished minds, any candidate that Obama supported must be the “Islamic” candidate that Buhari would also support. So Clinton was the “Islamic” candidate that must be reviled and vilified and Trump was the “Christian” candidate that must be supported and defended.

 Fabrication of intentional falsehoods to discredit both Buhari and Clinton is seen as a legitimate weapon of holy war against the forces of “Jihad.”

Trump not a “Christian”
These simpleminded, cerebrally subnormal, and wantonly illiterate “holy liars” celebrate Donald Trump as a “Christian” who will “deal” with Muslims. I hate to burst people’s bubble, but Trump is no Christian. He is just a self-indulgent, narcissistic materialist who doesn’t give a damn about spiritual verities.

For instance, on July 18 2015, according to CNN, Trump told a gathering of socially conservative Christians that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't," he said. As a Christian theologian said in response to Trump, “Asking God for forgiveness is a central aspect of Christianity across… many traditions. This is not relevant to his political views, but it is curious that many Christians support Trump and believe his claims about his Christian faith.”

During a speech at the conservative Christian Liberty University on January 18, 2016 Trump betrayed his spectacular lack of familiarity with the Bible when he quoted “Two Corinthians 3:17” instead of the “Second Corinthians” that observant Christians call it.

There is even more evidence that Trump isn’t familiar with the content of the Bible he claims is his “favorite book.” On August 26, 2015, Bloomberg reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann asked him to mention his one or two favorite Bible verses. He stammered and said, "Well, I wouldn't want to get into it because to me that's very personal."

In order to compensate for this embarrassment, about a month later, he tried to prove that he did, in fact, have some familiarity with the Bible. So, during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he said his favorite verse in the Bible was "Proverbs, the chapter 'never bend to envy.'" Problem is, Christians say such a verse doesn’t exist anywhere in the Bible.

Again, on April 14, 2016 New York radio host Bob Lonsberry asked Trump to name his favorite Bible verse. After hemming and hawing and prevaricating, he finally said “an eye for an eye” was his favorite Bible verse. Even a non-Christian like me knows that Jesus repudiated that verse in the New Testament. Many American Christians pointed out that in Matthew (5:38-42) Jesus said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Finally, Trump doesn’t even go to church. During a campaign stop in South Carolina last year, Trump said he was a "Presbyterian Protestant” who goes to the “Marble Collegiate Church” in New York. The very next day, the church issued a statement saying although Trump’s late parents were “active members” of the church, Trump “is not an active member of Marble," a polite way to say he lied about being a member of the church.

So, Trump, on whose behalf some religiously inspired fringe Nigerian websites invented a pitiful lie against Buhari, isn’t even the Christian they think he is.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mangled Trumpian Grammar as New American English?

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

The just concluded American presidential election didn’t excite me at all. That was why I didn’t write about it. But now that the election is over, I want to take some time to reflect on the effect the campaigns have had on English grammar and usage. I will start with Donald Trump.

Trump contorted the English language in more ways than any presidential candidate did. First, he was notorious for terrible, sometimes hilarious, misspellings on Twitter. After the Republican primary debates on February 26, 2016, for instance, Trump tweeted: “Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer!” He had earlier tweeted the following:Lying Ted Cruz and leightweight chocker Marco Rubio teamed up last night in a last ditch effort to stop our great movement. They failed!”

Trump became the object of ridicule. Senator Marco Rubio viciously excoriated him for his poor spelling the following day at a campaign rally.  A headline in the website captured it well. “Donald Trump Is Cluelessly and Hilariously Spelling Everything Wrong on Twitter Today,” it said. Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary couldn’t help pillorying Trump. It sent out a tweet where it defined “honer” as “one that hones,” and adds: “leightweight: We have no. idea.” It also defined “chocker” in obvious dig at Trump’s clumsy attempt to spell “choker.” (By “honer,” Trump meant to write “honor.”)

But it’s Trump’s unusual turns of phrase and simplistic, repetitive vocabulary that have attracted the most attention from American grammarians. A famous study by Carnegie Mellon University concluded that he speaks at a Third Grade Level, that is, the level of an American Primary School kid.  

English teachers have also torn apart his grammar. For instance, he mistook “temper” for “temperament” during one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. He also uttered the nonstandard “you was” during the debate. He said, "But you was totally out of control!" instead of the standard “But you were totally out of control!” Grammar pedants tore him to shreds.

And when he said, "They talk good around election" instead of “they speak well around election time,” many English teachers took to social media to say he had lost their votes. It is impossible to chronicle all the Trumpian solecisms in this article, but others that stood out include, "I pay tremendous numbers of taxes" and "Give economics to people."

Bad Grammar as Strategy of Condescension 
But as a rhetorician, I know Trump's mangled, dialectal English isn't necessarily a product of insufficient mastery of the language. It was a deliberate rhetorical strategy designed to establish identification with the lower end of the American social stratum that constitutes the "base" of the Republican Party. Poor, rural, uneducated white Americans who form the bulk of Trump’s support base speak the kind of regional, nonstandard English Trump spoke on the campaign trail.

In his book Language and Symbolic Power, French theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls this "strategy of condescension." Bourdieu didn't mean "condescension" in the everyday sense of the word as disdain for one’s social inferiors; he meant the ability to negotiate and seamlessly traverse several "linguistic markets," as he called it. He said this ability invests elites with immense social and cultural capital. As Peter Haney puts it, strategies of condescension occur "when someone at the top of a social hierarchy adopts the speech or style of those at the bottom. With such a move, the dominant actor seeks to profit from the inequality that he or she ostensibly negates."

George Bush used it to maximum effect. People still remember him as the former US president who could barely string together grammatically correct sentences in English, who spoke with a Texan drawl. But Bush is the scion of "old money" who went to elite prep schools and grew up mostly in America’s northeast. If he wanted to sound "polished" and "cultivated," he could, but he would risk calling attention to his privilege and thereby alienating people he wanted to appeal to. Scholars actually systematically compared his speeches before he became governor of Texas and after he became governor of Texas and found radical differences in his grammar, enunciation, and speech mannerisms. Before he became governor of Texas, he spoke like a typical American northeaster. His grammar and usage were polished and educated.

That doesn't mean people at the upper end of the social scale don't innocently mangle the language. For instance, when Hillary Clinton recently characterized some Trump supporters as belonging to a "basket of deplorables," American English grammarians took her on; they said "deplorable" is an adjective, not a noun, and therefore can’t be pluralized as "deplorables" since only nouns are pluralized. But "deplorables" may well become mainstream in the coming years if enough people with social and cultural capital use it the same way Hillary used it. That's how language evolves. 

In any case, the English language is full of examples of adjectives that became nouns. They are called nominalized adjectives. The word “greats” (meaning great people) comes to mind. It started out as an adjective. 

In a February 3, 2013 column titled "How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary," I pointed out several examples of the changes in the lexis and grammar of the language that were instigated by political and cultural elites across the pond. When former US President Warren Harding first used the word "normalcy" instead of the then usual "normality," he was ridiculed. But "normalcy" is now mainstream.

As I pointed out in the article, “Even the Queen of England, the unofficial guardian of the English tongue, is given to occasional violation of the rules of her own language. In their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut shared how the Queen misused the expression ‘due to’ and inadvertently caused the rule to be changed in favor of her misuse.

“In traditional grammar ‘due’ is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition ‘to’ it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of ‘due to’ at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of ‘because of’ or ‘owing to’ was considered uneducated.

“But when the Queen of England, in a Speech from the Throne, said, ‘Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage,’ this ‘uneducated’ usage gained respectability. It is no longer bad grammar.

“I once observed that this example shows the arbitrariness and unabashed elitism of (English) usage norms. But that’s only partly true. What is equally true is that research has shown that the Queen of England has lately been speaking like her subjects, leading the Daily Mail, UK’s second-biggest selling newspaper, to write in a recent story that ‘The Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English.’”

Unfortunately, only native English speakers get to have that much influence on the language, which is both unsurprising and invidious, given the status of English as a world language with more non-native speakers than native speakers. Creative deviations from the norm that emerge from non-native speakers are often condemned to marginality.

There are exceptions, though. Chinese English speakers in the US have made enduring contributions to the lexis and structure of the language in very fascinating ways. For instance, the expression "long time no see" came to English by way of Chinese English speakers in California. 

As I pointed out in my book, Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, this ungrammatical but nonetheless fixed English expression, which is used as a salutation by people who have not seen each other for a long time, is a loan translation from Mandarin hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn, which literally means "very long time no see." It was initially derided as "broken" English in California, but because the expression filled a real lexical and idiomatic void in the language, it quickly spread to other parts of the US, then crossed the pond to the UK, and is now part of the repertoire of international English.

Expressions like "no-go area," "have a look-see," etc. were also Chinese broken English expressions that are now idiomatic in the language. (Check out my April 19, 2015 column titled "Popular Expressions English Borrowed from Other Languages" and my 4-part series titled "The African Origins of Common English Words").

Given the impact that the cultural and political elite have on language, would Trumpian grammar change American English in significant ways? Business Insider thinks so: “Donald Trump may have forever changed the English language. Sad!”

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Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Making Sense of Trump’s Victory for Nigerians

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

Several of my Nigerian readers have asked me to help them make sense of Donald Trump’s unsettling electoral triumph over Hillary Clinton. Why would a country that prides itself on being the “greatest country on earth” and the world’s “oldest democracy” elect a vulgar, reactionary buffoon like Trump?

Well, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote, which makes Trump's “victory” not nearly as earth-shattering as it's been cracked up to be. American voters who went to the polls on November 8 DIDN'T reject Hillary Clinton; more Americans voted for her than they did for Donald Trump. The vote tally as of Wednesday shows that 59,796,265 people voted for Clinton, representing 48% of the total vote cast, and 59,589,806 people voted for Trump, representing 47% of the total vote. The remaining 5% went to third party candidates.

If this weren't America, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect. But American presidential election isn't a one-person-one-vote democracy like it is everywhere else. Here, voters don't directly elect their president. Instead, they elect “electors” to the Electoral College who then elect the president on behalf of the voters. It's a weird, outdated, convoluted and, frankly, undemocratic electoral system that non-Americans (and even Americans) have a hard time wrapping their heads around. So let me break it down for you.

Each state in America is allotted a number of “electors” that correspond to the number of representatives it has in Congress, that is, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. America’s founding fathers designed this to protect small, thinly populated states from being dominated by big, densely populated states. Every state has two senators irrespective of population. But, like in Nigeria, representation in the House of Representatives is proportional to the population of the states. So a populous state like California has 53 representatives while small, sparsely populated states like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming have just a representative each.

The Electoral College system, in principle, ensures that these small states have at least three electors in the Electoral College (to correspond to their congressional representation).

Since most states have a winner-takes-all system, any candidate who wins a plurality of the votes cast in a state, even if this is just by a vote, gets all the electors. In effect, the votes of people whose candidates lose the plurality of the vote don't count at all. That’s a huge disincentive to vote. So, for instance, if you live in the South where most people are dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republicans, it’s pointless to vote if you are a liberal Democrat because your vote won’t count.

However, two states—Maine and Nebraska— are not winner-takes-all states. They allot two electoral votes to the candidate that wins the plurality of the statewide vote and one electoral vote to the “winner of each Congressional district.”

In 26 states of the federation, electors can, technically, vote against the wishes of their electorate by not voting for the presidential candidate elected by voters in their state, although this rarely happens. (Some people are holding out hope that the electors would refuse to elect Trump in a few weeks from now, but that's wishful thinking). In the remaining 24 states, there are strict penalties against “faithless electors,” that is, electors who do not cast their votes for the candidate their electorates voted for.

Interestingly, in a 2012 tweet, Donald Trump wrote: "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." Today, ironically, he is a beneficiary of this "disaster for democracy” where it is mathematically possible to win just 30 percent of the popular vote and still win the Electoral College vote—and the presidency.

In America’s over 200-year history, there have been only 5 presidents who won the Electoral College vote and lost the popular vote.  In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to John Quincy Adams. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to Benjamin Harrison.

The only other contemporary instance of this, apart from Trump’s, is Al Gore’s loss of the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush in 2000 after winning the popular vote.

Attempts have been made in the past to abolish the Electoral College and give primacy to direct election, the last such attempt being between 1969 and 1971. The House of Representatives passed a resolution to abolish the Electoral College in 1969, but the Senate rejected the House resolution in 1971.

Also note that the last election had one of the lowest turnouts in recent American electoral history. Only about 55.3 percent of eligible voters voted. Compare this to 62.2 percent in 2008 and 58.6 percent in 2012—when enthusiasm was thought to be low.

More than 46 percent of eligible American voters didn’t vote this year, and only about 25 percent voted for Trump. That’s not a decisive mandate.

Clinton lost the battleground states (states with high electoral votes whose voting patterns aren’t predictable) because her supporters didn’t vote; they stayed home, buoyed by the false confidence that she was leading in the polls and that no sane person would elect a monster of bigotry and depravity like Trump. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, were motivated to vote because most polls said their candidate would lose.

So, basically, a minority of American voters gave us Trump because the majority of Americans refused to vote. Plato once said, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” We can rephrase that to, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by fascist, bigoted demagogues.” America is learning this the hard way.

This year’s electoral choice says more about American political apathy than it does about American endorsement of Trump’s bigotry. The only consolation is that America has resilient, enduring institutions that can withstand Trump. Trump won’t— and can’t—do a quarter of the things he said he would do because he would be hamstrung by the sheer strength of America’s institutions.

That was the hope I had for Nigeria when Buhari was elected president. In my May 16, 2015 column titled,"6 Reasons Why Incoming Buhari Government Fills Me with Hope," I wrote: “President Barack Obama is famous for saying, ‘Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.’ But strong institutions don’t come out of thin air; they are built by strong men through the strength of their personal example. I hope Buhari is the strong man who will build strong institutions in Nigeria with the strength of his character.”

Exactly a month later in South Africa, Buhari echoed my thoughts: “When US President Barack Obama came to Africa…he said Africa…should have strong institutions instead of strong leaders. If he had come to Nigeria, he would have known that it was strong Nigerians that destroyed the strong institutions. And, paradoxically, maybe another strong Nigerian will come and revive the institutions and make them strong again,” he said on June 16 in Johannesburg while speaking with the Nigerian community there after an AU meeting.

Sadly, it’s turning out that my hopes were misplaced. Buhari isn’t building any institutions; he is only building a personality cult around himself. He appears, so far, to be interested in fighting corruption only if it is committed by his political foes while shielding corrupt people who are in his good graces. The nation’s security forces, particularly the DSS, have become ruthless foot soldiers of Buhari’s personal political vendetta against adversaries—just like during Jonathan’s time.

America can survive Trump’s demagoguery because of the strength of its institutions. I hope Nigeria can also survive Buhari’s “business-as-usual” government masquerading as “change.”

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Myth of the Decline in Standard of English Usage and Grammar

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

There is an enduring chronocentric arrogance in our assessment of notions of quality all over the world. (Chronocentrism is the false, narcissistic belief that one’s or another generation is superior to generations that came before and/or after it). We perpetually bewail the fall in the standards of everything, especially language, presumably from the good old days of “our” or another time.

Every year when the West African Examination Council releases results of “O” level exams, there is often a cornucopia of national mourning in the media about the fall in the standard of education—and especially of English. Several people in my generation read social media posts by younger people and conclude that our world is in peril because we are being succeeded by cheerfully irresponsible know-nothings.

Here in America, my professor colleagues also think the quality of English—and of education itself—is in a frighteningly inexorable freefall, and that the millennial generation can’t be entrusted with the future of the world. “Nobody teaches grammar anymore” is a common refrain among self-appointed grammar Nazis here.

But is the standard of English actually falling? Or is the language merely changing? But, most importantly, has there been a time in the history of the world when standards were thought to be perfect or even adequate?

A Glimpse from the Past
Apparently, chronocentric putdowns of the linguistic proficiency of younger generations is as old as time itself. In his book titled Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, Harvey A. Daniels tells us that there are records of pedagogical apprehensions about falling standards of writing and grammar since more than 4,000 years ago in Sumerian, the world’s first written language. “It seems that among the first of the clay tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars was one which recorded the agonized complaints of a Sumerian teacher about the sudden drop-off in students’ writing ability,” he wrote.

The Economist’s “Johnson” language column of February 12, 2015 quoted the Sumerian language teacher to have said the following about the decline in standards: “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger. He does not pay attention to the scribal art.”

How about English? When did snooty scholars and teachers start complaining about the “decline” of the language?

English has been “bad” since the 1300s
William Langland, an English author, is probably the first recorded chronocentric pedant to bemoan the fall in the standard of English. The Economist quoted him as having written, sometime in the 1300s, that, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”

The paper also exhumed a quote from 1387 attributed to an English monk and historian by the name of Ranulph Higden who thought the English tongue was being contaminated by inelegant mixing with Norman French and Vikings.  (French people from Normandy conquered the English in 1066 and colonized them for years, including imposing Norman French as the official language of the country).

“By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng,” he said. Of course, this is Middle English (as English spoken from 1100 to 1450 is called), which is incomprehensible to many Modern English speakers. Thankfully, the Economist translated it into modern English thus: “English speakers had taken to ‘strange, articulate utterance, chattering, snarling and harsh teeth-gnashing’, bad habits he put down to the mixing together of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French.”

Sociolinguists call this code-mixing, that is, the deliberate fusion of lexical elements from two or more distinct languages in one speech act. Interestingly, Hidgen was also guilty of the “offense” of code-mixing that he railed against. “Commiyxtion” (commixing), for instance, traces lexical descent from Norman French, ultimately from Latin. So do “strange” and “contray” (“contrary”).

In 1672, famous English poet John Dryden thought everyone in his generation spoke and wrote terrible English, which departed from the inimitable standards left by Shakespeare and his contemporaries: “It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. … [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense,” he wrote.

In the 1700s, English satirist Jonathan Swift said the decline in the standards of English was so enormous that it warranted the establishment of a language academy to police grammar and usage, although, ironically, he thought French, which had (and still has) a language academy, was in a worse state than English. “Our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar,” he wrote.

In 1762, Robert Lowth, whom the Economist called “probably the most influential English grammarian of all time,” wrote a grammar book in which he pilloried the grammar of even English greats like Shakespeare, John Milton, and writers of the King James Bible. “Our best authors have committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar,” he wrote.

In 1786, James Beattie, a Scottish poet and philosophy professor, lamented that, “Our language is degenerating very fast.”

In 1852, Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough also tore apart the quality of grammar and writing of his time. “Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition,” he wrote.

English in America
Anxieties about the decline in the quality of English isn’t limited to Britain; it also manifested early in America. A Scottish writer by the name of Captain Thomas Hamilton who visited America in the 1800s wrote: “Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested...there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.” Nearly 200 years after, it hasn’t.

In 1879, a Harvard University professor by the name of Adams Sherman Hill condemned “the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions.”

In a well-cited 1889 essay titled “Methods of Study in English,” an American by the name of M. W. Smith wrote: “The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”

 In 1917, yet another American by the name of Charles Henshaw Ward said, “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen [i.e., first-year university students] can't spell, can't punctuate.’ Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”

In a 1961 book by J. Mersand titled Attitudes toward English Teaching, we read the following: “Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”

Finally, in a 1978 book by Arn Tibbets and Charlene Tibbets titled What’s Happening to American English?, the following sentence appears: “The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense.... In the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread. Nor in the past has the general idiom, on which we depend for our very understanding of vital matters, been so seriously distorted.”

No Golden Age
It is apparent that there has never been an age in the history of humankind when education and language use were considered perfect, when people didn’t have anxieties about decline in standards. This is true not just of English but of all languages. In other words, there was never a golden age. Nor would there ever be. So let’s stop beating ourselves up.

There have always been, and there will always be, people who cherish and guard grammar and “proper” usage, people who are ignorant of the socially acceptable consensus in language use, and people who intentionally transgress conventional boundaries.

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