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“An advice,” “a good news”: Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi Many people called my attention to a tweet by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, President Muh...

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

Many people called my attention to a tweet by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, who wrote that her travel warning to Nigerians to not travel to the US was just “an advice.”

That is, of course, grammatically incorrect. “Advice” is a non-count noun, which does not admit of the conventional singular and plural forms of regular nouns. In other words, there is neither “advices” nor “an advice.” The singular form of “advice” is expressed as “a piece of advice” (or just “advice”) and the plural form is expressed as “pieces of advice.”

Dabiri-Erewa, who is incidentally a graduate of English from the Obafemi Awolowo University, is not alone in the practice of unconventionally singularizing and pluralizing uncountable nouns.

In an April 14, 2010 article titled “Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English,” I pointed out that, “One notable feature of Nigerian English is the predilection for adding plural forms to nouns that don’t normally admit of them in Standard English. This is certainly a consequence of the inability of many Nigerian speakers and writers of the English language to keep up with the quirky, illogical irregularities that are so annoyingly typical of the conventions of English grammar.”

How English Plurals Are Formed

It’s common knowledge that the plural form of most nouns in English is created by adding the letter “s” to the end of nouns. But sometimes it requires adding “es” to nouns that end in “ch,” “x,” “s,” or s-like sounds, such as “inches,” “axes,” “lashes,” etc. There are also, of course, irregular forms like “children” as the plural of “child,” “oxen as the plural of “ox,” etc.

Then you have uncountable—or, if you will, “non-count”— nouns, which cannot be modified or combined with the indefinite articles “a” or “an.” This is precisely where Nigerians fall foul of standard usage norms.

Irregular noun plurals

Most educated Nigerians generally know that nouns like equipment, furniture, information (except in the expression “criminal informations,” or “an information,” which is used in the US and Canada to mean formal accusation of a crime, akin to indictments), advice, news, luggage, baggage, faithful (i.e., loyal and steadfast following, as in, “millions of Christian and Muslim faithful”), offspring, personnel, etc. remain unchanged even when they are expressed in a plural sense. But few know of many other nouns that have this characteristic.

Unconventional noun singularizations in Nigerian English
Although most educated Nigerians would never say “newses” or “advices” or “informations” to express the plural forms of these nouns, they tend to burden the words with singular forms that are not grammatical. For instance, they would say something like “that’s a good news” or “it’s just an advice” or “it’s an information for you.”

Well, since these nouns don’t have a plural form, they also can’t have a singular variant, that is, they cannot be combined with the indefinite articles “a” or “an.” So the correct way to render the sentences above would be “that’s a good piece of news” (or simply “that’s good news”), “it’s just a piece of advice” (or “it’s just advice), and “it’s information for you.”

Other nouns that are habitually pluralized wrongly in Nigerian English are:

“Legislations.” Nigerians inflect the word “legislation” for grammatical number by adding “s” to it. The sense of the word that denotes “law” (such as was used in this Punch headline: “Nigerians need legislations that will ease their problems –Cleric”) does not take an “s” even if it’s used in the plural sense. In Standard English, the word’s plural form is usually expressed with the phrase “pieces of,” or such other “measure word” (as grammarians call such expressions).

 So the headline should correctly read: “Nigerians need pieces of legislation…” or simply “Nigerians need legislation….” However, the sense of the word that means “the act of making laws” may admit of an “s,” although it’s rare to encounter the world “legislations” in educated speech in Britain or America.

 “Rubbles.” Another noun that Nigerians commonly add “s” to in error is “rubble,” that is, the remains of something that has been destroyed or broken up. This word is never inflected for plural. It’s customary to indicate its plural form with the measure word “piles of,” as in, “piles of rubble.” (Grammarians call words that are invariably singular in form “singulare tantum”).

“Vermins.” Similarly, the word “vermin,” which means pests (e.g. cockroaches or rats) — or an irritating or obnoxious person— is invariably singular and therefore does not require an “s” or the indefinite article “a.” But in Nigerian English it’s common to encounter sentences like “they are vermins” or “he is a vermin.”

“Footages/aircrafts.” “Footage” and “aircraft” are also invariably singular. So it’s nonstandard to either say or write, as many Nigerian do, “a footage” or “footages,” “an aircraft” or “aircrafts.”  Dispense with the “s” at the end of the nouns and the indefinite articles “a” and “an” at the beginning.

“Heydays.” There is nothing like “heydays” in Standard English. It remains “heyday” even if the sense of the word is plural.

“Yesteryears.”  Yesteryear is also invariably singular and does not change form when it expresses a plural sense. Only Nigerian English speakers and perhaps other non-native English speakers pluralize “yesteryear.”

“Cutleries.” Cutlery always remains “cutlery” even if you’re talking of millions of eating utensils.

“An overkill.” In Standard English, “overkill” is usually uninflected for number. So, where Nigerian English speakers would say “it’s an overkill,” people who speak standard varieties of English simply say “it’s overkill.”

“Slangs.” Nigerian English speakers habitually pluralize slang as “slangs” and singularize it as “a slang.” That’s unconventional. The Standard English plural forms of “slang” can be just “slang” (as in, “he speaks a lot of slang”) or “slang words,” or “slang terms,” or “slang expressions.” The singular form is simply “slang” (as in, “that was slang”).

“Invectives.” The word’s plural form is expressed by saying “a stream of invective,” not “invectives.”

“Beehive of activities.” The expression “beehive of activities,” which is common in Nigerian English, is nonstandard. It is usually rendered as “a beehive of activity” (also “a hive of activity). Its plural form is “beehives of activity” (or “hives of activity”). When “activity” means a “situation in which something is happening or a lot of things are being done,” it is usually uncountable.

So, it should be “a lot of economic activity,” not “a lot of economic activities.” It should be “physical activity,” not “physical activities.”
The only sense of “activity” that is pluralized is the sense that means “a thing that you do for interest or pleasure, or in order to achieve a particular aim,” such as “outdoor activities,” “leisure activities,” “criminal activities,” etc.

 “Potentials.” It is usual in Nigerian English, even educated Nigerian English, to pluralize “potential” as “potentials,” particularly in the expression “Nigeria has great potentials.” In Standard English, however, “potential” is often uninflected for number, that is, it remains “potential” even if its sense is plural.

Why Native Speakers Don’t Pluralize These Nouns

As I’ve observed and chewed over these admittedly vexatious English plural forms over the years, I have been struck by the fact that I’ve never encountered any native speaker of the English language who has flouted these rules in speech or in writing. Not even my American college students who can be lax and slipshod with their grammar.

I think this is a consequence of the force of example. When people grow up not hearing older people say “an advice,” “a good news,” “legislations,” “vermins,” etc., they unconsciously internalize and make peace with the illogical irregularities that these exceptions truly are.

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