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Soyinka’s “Be Rest Assured,” “Learned Colleague,” and Other Grammar Q and A

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Question: I read one of your articles in which you pointed out some expression...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I read one of your articles in which you pointed out some expressions that are wrongly used or mangled in Nigerian English. One of such expressions is “be rest assured.” You said the correct idiom is “rest assured.” However, I recently read a book by Wole Soyinka titled Ake: The Years of Childhood. I found the expression “be rest assured” used in the book. The sentence goes thus: “But the main thing they wanted to say to us was that we should be rest assured that they would not allow things to spoil in Egbaland” (p.222). Is there any justification for this? I am confused.

“Be rest assured” is not standard usage, at least in native varieties of English.  The fact that Wole Soyinka used it in his autobiography (assuming what you said is accurate) doesn’t change that fact.

Wole Soyinka, in spite of his inimitably masterful proficiency in the English language, is a product of his socio-linguistic environment. That means his English usage is occasionally inflected by his Nigerian background. This is true of all of us whose formative years were spent in Nigeria, including me. Even though I now live in a country where English is the native language and write about comparative grammar and usage every week, I still occasionally unconsciously betray my Nigerian socio-linguistic background in my written and spoken English. It’s inescapable.

In the 8-part series I wrote in mid-2007 titled, “Divided by a Common Language: Comparing Nigerian, American and British English,” I noted the following:

“However hard we might try, we can't help writing and speaking English in ways that reflect our socio-linguistic singularities. Even our own Wole Soyinka who thinks he speaks and writes better English than the Queen of England habitually betrays "Nigerianisms" in his writings. Or at least that's what the native speakers of the language think. For instance, when he was admitted into the Royal Society of Arts, the citation on his award read something like: ‘Mr. Soyinka is a prolific writer in the vernacular English of his own country.’

“I learned that Soyinka's pride was badly hurt when he read the citation. But it needn't be. It was Chinua Achebe who once said, in defense of his creative semantic and lexical contortions of the English language to express uniquely Nigerian thoughts that have no equivalents in English, that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores and encroach on the territory of other people should learn to come to terms with the inevitable reality that it would be domesticated.”

I think it’s fair to say that “be rest assured” is now a legitimate Nigerian English variant of “rest assured.”

I'm an ardent follower of your write-ups and I have learnt a lot and also taught my students using your material. I just saw something on VOA Facebook page that got me startled. It is: “The remains of former Cuba president Fidel Castro were laid to rest." Why the use of "remains" which necessitated the verb "were"? Why plural when it is being used in reference to an entity? Secondly, is there any difference between the following sentences?
1. I am a catholic
2. I am catholic
1. I am Igbo
2 I am an Igbo

When “remains” is used to denote a dead body it is always pluralized even when it refers to a single person. Grammarians call nouns that are invariably plural “pluralia tantum.” Although “remains” refers to a single entity, it always agrees with a plural verb, as in, “remains are,” not “remains is.”

Now to your second question. Both usages are correct because “Catholic” and “Igbo” are both nouns and adjectives. If you say “I am a Catholic” or “I am an Igbo,” you are using “Catholic” and “Igbo” as nouns. But if you say “I am Catholic” or “I am Igbo,” you are using “Catholic” and “Igbo” as adjectives. Both forms are perfectly legitimate.

Americans, for example, both say “I am American” and “I am an America.” The British also either say “I am British” or “I am a Briton.”

I am an ardent reader of your columns, particularly your Sunday column. One thing confusing about the dynamics of English is the fact that at the elementary level, we were told that an adjective qualifies a noun.  However, one whom I respect for his good command of English questioned the use of adjectives in some places. For example: “agriculture finance,”  “education sector,” “technology transfer,” etc. instead of agricultural finance, educational sector, etc. Kindly write something on this.

Well, it isn’t only adjectives that qualify nouns. Nouns can also sometimes qualify other nouns. Grammarians call such nouns “attributive nouns.” They are also called “noun (pre)modifiers” or “noun adjuncts.” In the expression “paper plate,” for example, “paper,” which is a noun, qualifies “plate,” another noun. In the expression “goat meat,” goat modifies meat even though both words are nouns.

All natural languages give users wide expressive latitudes. Some people prefer to use adjectives to modify nouns; others prefer attributive nouns to adjectives. Both are permissible. In some instances, however, stylistic choices are circumscribed by considerations of idiomaticity. By this I mean that some expressions are simply fixed and deviations from the fixed form sound unnatural. For instance, it’s more natural to say “finance minister” than to say “financial minister,” even though “finance” and “minister” are both nouns—and “financial minister” isn’t grammatically wrong, just unidiomatic. But both “technological transfer” and “technology transfer” are acceptable and often used interchangeably, as are “agricultural transfer” and “agriculture transfer.”

I only saw "A" or "A*" in my dictionaries signifying the highest grade in academic work. But in my result and some other people in Nigeria, there is "A1". Is this only peculiar to West Africa?

It isn’t exactly peculiar to Anglophone West Africa. “A1” as an academic grade classification in secondary school examinations is derived from British English, although the British no longer use it. But many former British colonies like Singapore, Pakistan, India, etc. still use it. It is also used in Ireland. Malaysia used it until 2009 when it switched to the American A, A-, A+ system.

The use of A1, A2, A3, etc. to denote quality dates back to 1837 when it was first used to classify the condition of insured ships in England. Alphanumeric grades were assigned to the ships to correspond to their quality.

Outside of these contexts, A1 means first-rate, of the highest quality.

Why do lawyers in Nigeria call themselves and their profession “learned”? Is it international practice? Do American lawyers, for instance, also call themselves and their profession “learned”?

“Learned profession” is an old expression traditionally used to refer to medicine, theology, and law. They were called “learned” because of the disproportionately extensive intellectual preparation required to qualify to practice them. As you can see, “learned profession” never exclusively referred to law.

In contemporary usage, any vocation that requires extensive specialized training is a learned profession. But “profession” is now preferred to “learned profession.”

“My learned friend”— or “my learned colleague”— is a polite term of address that lawyers in British courts use when they address each other, especially if they are opponents. The term was introduced to enhance mutual courtesy in legal disputations. Before the term was introduced, lawyers who argued on opposite sides of a case never used to even shake hands in the courts, and often used crude, coarse, unguarded putdowns to undermine each other. So it’s a term of courtesy, not an indication of professional superiority, although many Nigerian lawyers don’t seem to know this.

And, no, American lawyers don’t call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague,” nor do they call their profession a “learned profession” or, worse, the “only learned profession”—as some pitifully ignorant, self-important Nigerian lawyers do.

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