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“Police is your friend,” “fire for fire”: Q and A on Nigerian English Errors

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:@farooqkperogi Question: Is it “congratulate for” or “congratulate on”? In other words, should...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “congratulate for” or “congratulate on”? In other words, should it be, “I congratulate you for your achievement” or “I congratulate you on your achievement”? A friend told me only “congratulate on” is correct, but I have come across “congratulate for” in many respectable places.

It used to be said that “congratulate” only collocates with “on.” That’s no longer true. All modern dictionaries and usage guides now say “congratulate” collocates with both “on” and “for” depending on the meaning you want to convey.

When you want to send good wishes or expressions of joy to someone on the occasion of a personal milestone in their life, such as marriage, birth of a child, promotion at work, etc. “on” is the usual preposition that collocates with “congratulate.” Examples: I congratulate you on your marriage. I congratulate you on the birth of your child.

However, when you want to acknowledge an achievement or praise someone for a great effort, use of “congratulate for” is permissible. Example: I congratulate you for paying workers’ salaries promptly.

The distinctions aren’t terribly clear-cut, I know, but the bottom line is that both prepositions collocate with “congratulate.”

Governor Rauf Aregbesola changed the name of his state from “Osun State” to “State of Osun.” Is this change justified from a grammatical point of view?

The short answer is no. But the governor is probably aping American naming conventions. In the United States, states are officially called “state of…” For instance, I live in the “State of Georgia,” not “Georgia State.” I used to live in the “State of Louisiana,” not “Louisiana State.”

Here, the name precedes “state,” such as Georgia State, Louisiana State, Alabama State, etc. only when reference is made to state universities. Thus, Georgia State is the short form of Georgia State University, Mississippi State is the short form of Mississippi State University, Alabama State is the short form of Alabama State University, etc.

Note that there are no federal universities in the United States. Universities are either owned by state governments or by private individuals/organizations. State universities that are located in state capitals are typically called by the name of the state in combination with “state” and “university.” (There are a few exceptions, though). For example, the State of Georgia has two big universities: the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. The University of Georgia is located in a small town called Athens, but Georgia State University is located in Atlanta, the state capital, which explains why it is called “Georgia State.” Louisiana State University is located in Baton Rouge, the state capital, while the University of Louisiana is located in the city of Lafayette. Both are owned by the State of Louisiana.

So, in the interest of clarity, “state of …” is understood to refer to states and “… State” (e.g. Minnesota State) is understood to refer to state universities located in the state capital.

I don’t see the justification for calling Osun State the “State of Osun” since “Osun State” is unlikely to be mistaken for anything.

Is it, “Police is your friend” or “Police are your friend”?

The grammatically correct expression is “police are your friend,” NOT “police is your friend.” It is also “police are coming,” NOT “police is coming.” “Police” is a collective noun—like “people,” “cattle, etc.—and always takes a plural verb. Just like you can’t say “people is your friend,” or “people is coming,” you also can’t say “police is your friend” or “police is coming.”

There are many ways to singularize “police.” You can say “policeman,” “policewoman,” or “police officer.” You can also say, “The police department is your friend.”

Please point me to where you wrote about the expression “fire for fire.” I am the editor of a newspaper in Lagos and a reporter of mine told me you pointed out in one of your “Politics of Grammar” articles that “fire for fire” is Nigerian English. My search through the archives of Daily Trust didn’t bring up the article. If you can republish it, I and many people in our newsroom will benefit.

The usual idiom is "(fight) fire with fire." So the preposition is “with,” not “for.” The phrase basically means to use the same tactics and strategies your opponent is using to fight you. If the opponent uses violence use violence, too. If he uses treachery, use treachery, too.

 Shakespeare first used this expression in his play titled King John. He wrote:
“Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror”

“Fight” was later inserted into the expression (first in American English and now in all varieties of English) to have “fight fire with fire.” Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, distorted this Shakespearean expression to “fire for fire” in his infamous “Operation Fire for Fire” campaign, and “fire for fire” has now become a stock expression in Nigerian English.

If the sons and daughters of my siblings are my nephews and nieces respectively, how do I refer to the children (male or female) of my cousins?

Your question anticipated an article I am working on. It’s about native English familial terminologies that are absent in Nigerian English. I will only give a short answer to your question for now. My forthcoming article will elaborate it.

The children of your first cousin are technically called your "first cousins once removed," but you can also informally call them your nephews (if they are male) and your nieces (if they are female).

Sometime back, I had an argument with one of my friends on how to use “at” and “in.” Can you tell us the difference between them?

Both “at” and “in” are prepositions that we use to indicate location. Generally, it is understood in usage circles that “at” is used when we are talking about a point, that is, a precise location, while “in” is used when we are talking about an area, that is, a geographic area with an extensive boundary. So, for instance, we would say “I’m at the Abuja City Gate” because it’s a precise location, but we would say “I’m in Abuja” because “Abuja” is a huge expanse of land with an extensive boundary.

Following this logic, grammarians generally agree that a small town is a point and a big city is an area. Therefore, the preposition of choice when we talk about a small town is “at” (e.g., “his wife lives at Kenu”) while the preferred preposition to refer to cities is “in” (e.g. “I live and work in Lagos”). However, it is perfectly legitimate to use “in” to refer to a village if you have a sentimental attachment to it. Only people who have no emotional connection with a small town use “at” to refer to it.

But it gets even trickier. When we talk of any place (including big cities) as a point on a map, the only acceptable preposition is “at.” Example: “Dana Airline crashed at Lagos on its way to Abuja.”

There are also dialectal differences in the use of “at” and “in,” especially in reference to educational institutions. In British English, it is customary to say “at school,” “at college,” etc. while American English prefers “in school,” “in college,” etc.

“At” has also emerged as the preferred preposition when companies talk about themselves self-referentially. Examples: “We at Daily Trust question the notion that…,” “At Union Bank, our goal is…” etc. 

But it’s good to note that “in” used to be the preferred preposition in companies’ self-referential statements. The change to “at” is a relatively recent usage shift.

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