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“Economy Grows by 1.4 %”: Grammar Q and A on a Senator’s Tweet

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Question: Senator Shehu Sani wrote the following on Twitter: “Good news that o...

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

Senator Shehu Sani wrote the following on Twitter: “Good news that our economy grows by 1.4%; only that the masses will ask what does that mean.” Someone called A.S. Aruwa responded thus: “Extinguished senator, I thought it was “grew”? Don’t you think you should also take the Primary 4 competency test?” Many people on Facebook and Twitter are almost evenly divided on whether or not Senator Sani is correct. Can you wade in and settle this grammatical dispute for us?

Only a person with insufficient knowledge of English grammar would defend the senator’s tweet as grammatically correct. In English grammar, the present tense expresses habitual action, that is, something that happens all the time. It is grammatically indefensible to say “our economy grows by 1.4%” because the growth the senator describes isn’t habitual. I looked at the statistics of Nigeria’s economic growth in the last few years and found wildly variable rates, and it is entirely conceivable that next year’s growth would be different from this year’s.

Since Nigeria’s economic growth clearly doesn’t follow a predictable, invariable pattern, it’s obvious that the senator meant to write “our economy GREW by 1.4 percent.” I won’t judge him, though, because social media platforms are notorious graveyards of grammatical correctness and completeness. 

As a consequence of the dizzying pace of social media communication, the smallness and inconvenience of the devices on which most social media interactions occur, the informality of social media platforms, and the need for lexical economy, especially on Twitter, even careful writers and grammar mavens commit avoidable errors. I’m not immune from occasional social-media-induced errors of carelessness, too. For instance, on a Facebook status update, I once wrote “jerked up petrol prices” when I meant to write “jacked up petrol prices,” among many silly errors I habitually make when I write in haste.

So I’ve learned to not judge people’s grammar on the basis of what they write on social media. I am writing on this only because scores of people have asked for my intervention and because I think it’s an opportune moment to teach a basic grammar lesson. It is not by any means intended to ridicule Senator Sani.

“Historical present”: Present tense for past events
Note that although I said the present tense only expresses habitual action, there is something called the “historical present” in grammar, which upends this rule. The historical present is the use of the present tense to express actions that happened in the past. It’s mostly used in creative fiction. But it’s also used in informal conversational English, especially in American English.

On April 22, 2010, for instance, a reader asked me the following question: “When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less about tenses. Or maybe it’s something beyond me, I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me please?”

And this was my response: “Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the ‘historical present’ in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It's intended to make a past event more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. In conversational English, it's particularly used with such ‘verbs of communication’ as ‘get’ (as in, ‘OK, I get it: you’re a genius!’), ‘forget’ (as in, ‘I forget his name’), ‘tell’ (as in, ‘your dad tells me you want to talk to me’). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are ‘write’ and ‘say.’ 

“I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British do. Of course, the historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives. In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would be perfectly legitimate to replace ‘get’ with ‘got.’ In fact, in formal contexts, ‘got’ would be especially appropriate.”

I want to add that for the historical present to be effective and acceptable, it should be consistent. If I am describing my childhood, for example, using the historical present, that is, using the present tense to narrate past events in order to lend them vividness, I cannot slip in and out of the present and past tenses. I should consistently use the present tense.

In feature writing the historical present is also permissible, even encouraged. That’s why you find attributions like:

 “I love what I do here,” Danjuma says.

In the above quote and attribution, it’s obvious that Danjuma doesn’t always say “I love what I do here.” He probably only said it once to a reporter at some time in the past, but the attribution, that is, “says,” is in the present tense. That’s perfectly acceptable in feature writing. It gives intensity and color to narrative writing. In straight, hard-news writing, however, the attribution would be in the past tense, that is, it would be “Danjuma said.”

I tell my students that I will only penalize their use of the historical present in feature writing if they are not consistent with it. If they write “Smith says” in one place and “Williams said” in another, I would assume that they are either incompetent or careless users of tenses and penalize them for it.

Not historical present, but headlinese
Although the historical present is justified in creative fiction, feature writing, and conversational English, Senator Sani’s use of “grows” in his tweet isn’t an instance of the use of the historical present. His tweet was informed by news stories with headlines that approximate this: “Nigeria's economy grows 1.4 percent in Q3: data.”

So, apparently, the senator’s tweet was only echoing the news headlines of the day. That means it should correctly have been written in the past tense since the senator isn’t a news reporter. Here is what I mean.

You see, every profession has its distinctive style of English usage. For instance, the turgid, tautological language of lawyers is called “legalese.” The stilted, pretentiously formal language of government bureaucrats is called “bureaucratese” or “officialese.” Corporate executives speak and write “corporatese.” Medical doctors write and speak “medicalese.” And so on and so forth.

Well, journalists also write and speak journalese, and there is a branch of journalese called “headlinese” (or headline English), which is the grammatical and expressive style that is unique to news headlines and which would be ungrammatical in non-journalistic contexts.

For instance, headline writers almost always use the present tense to describe past events in order to give them an appearance of recency. That’s why you read headlines like “Boko Haram kills 20 people in Maiduguri” even when the killings took place a day earlier, or why you read headlines like “American economy grows 10 percent in third quarter” even when we are reading the news of the growth in the fourth quarter, which should make it a past event.

If you pay close attention to journalistic writing, you’d notice that although headlines about past events are often written in the present tense, the main story is always written in the past tense. A headline’s job is to call attention to a story, to grab the reader by the jugular, and the psychology of news consumption shows that readers are less likely to read a story if, from the headline, it comes across as a bygone event. In a way, you might call the present tense in news headlines as a reportorial marketing gimmick.

Now, there is no reason why someone who isn’t casting a news headline should use the present tense to describe a past event. In other words, leave headlinese to journalists. Every truly educated journalist knows that the present tense in news headlines is ungrammatical, but we insist on using it because news is a commodity that must be sold in the market, and we know readers gravitate more to news that is fresh and vivid than to news that is stale and dull.

Interestingly, for some reason, Nigerian English speakers have been seduced by headlinese in ways other speakers of the English language aren’t. For example, in headlinese, we dispense with articles (such as “a,” “an,” and “the”) and conjunctions (such as “and” and “but”) in order to save headline space in print journalism. So the idiom “in the soup” became “in soup” in news headlines. Over time, however, Nigerian English speakers stopped saying “he is in the soup”; they now say “he is in soup” as if they are casting newspaper headlines.

Headlinese also has a fondness for monosyllabic alternatives to polysyllabic words and for the abbreviation of long words in order to conserve space. That’s why “slay” is preferred to “murder,” “nab” is preferred to “arrest,” “cop” is preferred to “police,” “biz man” is used instead of “business man,” “gov” instead of “governor” or “governorship” (Nigerian headline writers have invented “guber” as a short form of “gubernatorial”), and so on.

Journalese and headlinese have a long tradition. However, when someone uses them in contexts that are not journalistic it is legitimate to describe them as having committed a grammatical error.

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