Column Essence

Media Gaffes 

DAILY Sun Front Page of November 20 welcomes us today with three headline blunders: “Election riggers risk 3 years (years’ or three-year) jail term”

“Out of court (Out-of-court) settlement: 21 Ibadan Obas (needless capitalization) lose crowns”

Two more headline crimes from round the city: “Man arrested over (for) ex-wife’s lover’s death”

“My juju failed me, pastor tells police” ‘Juju’, being a regional word, should have been quoted or italicized. Alternatively, ‘charm’ could have been appropriately used.

Please note that ‘enrolment’, preferably, is British English while ‘enrollment’ is American. The choice is yours! 

“The Senate (‘Senate’, as applied here, is not a proper noun and should, therefore, not be capitalized). If the writer had said ‘the Nigerian Senate’, it would have made sense. UNILAG, my alma mater, for instance, also has a senate) recently urged the Federal Government (federal government) to ban the importation of textile materials into the country….” (DAILY SUN Editorial, November 20) The last three words in the extract are clearly otiose, ludicrous, embarrassing and demonstrative of literacy poverty. Would the importation have been into Ghana?  

“Buhari, Kalu condole (condole with or simply console) Atiku over aide’s death”

Let me restate that this column is a compilation of language reviews of the Nigerian media (print and electronic). The simple—but not simplistic—characterization removes the boredom usually associated with most grammar textbooks and reference materials.

There would be a slight repetitive input in the series. It is deliberate for purposes of emphasis and clarity. My experience has shown that most people get acquainted with literary issues only after several textual encounters. In fact, the recurrent nature of communicative mistakes justifies this disposition. While craving the indulgence of those who will benefit from this imperfect design, I appeal to critics to empathize with me on grounds of my other avocations and taxing commitments. This, however, is not exonerative of any deficiencies. 

The excerpts are set off by quotation marks while my comments come after each attribution, usually.

According to J. E Metcalfe, poor English is with us everywhere, on the radio and TV, in newspapers and books, in our speech and correspondence (note that ‘correspondence’ is uncountable). Of course we cannot all have the same magnificent command of English as Shakespeare or Churchill, but we all need a thorough grounding in the basic elements of English. 

Some of the challenges we would be examining here are: the omission of determiners before the singular forms of count nouns, circumlocution, wrong application of non–count nouns, recurrent use of reflexive pronouns in place of reciprocal pronouns and the employment of transitive verbs without objects. 

When a word is said to be non-count (or uncountable), it means that it is not capable of making a morphological distinction between singular and plural forms. The distinction between count and non– count words should not be interpreted literally. It is does not refer to the possibility of the object designated by the word being physically countable. Rather, it refers to the grammatical characteristics of the word. It is germane to add that some words curiously have a dual nature: they can be count or non–count, depending on context. 

The pervasive American influence on every aspect of humanity is such that some people are beginning to say that by the turn of this century, American English world have replaced the Queen’s version! Nevertheless, purists still insist on British Standard English. This attitude will inform the references in this column, which is confirmatory of my aversion for Americanism!

Non–native users of the English language tend to make the language logical when it is not. This is responsible for absurdities like beddings, cutleries, stationeries and loots all of which do not require any inflexion. The italicized words are some of the linguistic monstrosities that faddishly appear in Nigerian newspapers daily. 

While the battle for language supremacy continues, individual differences, formality and scholarship are what would determine preferences–-not necessarily conventional acceptability informed by sociolinguistics and other environmental peculiarities–-as long as there is no ambiguity in meaning.

Linguistic currency is such that changes take place at a rate that even those with a passion for a particular language are unlikely to catch up. So what lovers of the English language do is to continually keep abreast of latest trends and strive after excellence. A lot of morphological changes occur, but the basic rules remain the same despite inherent dynamism: antecedents and (verbal) complements must always agree, as an instance. 

The fact that the English language is illogical does not mean that users should not exercise some form of logic in their usage. All one needs is a voracious reading culture. Most people’s reading habit is abysmally poor; a majority of those who read at all prefer gossip materials to educative publications. And because such sensational rags are written in horrible English, the inclination to classic conformity becomes structurally obscure. These points cannot be ignored because they impair the effectiveness of communication. One does not need to be a pedant before appreciating the worth of words.

Conrad and Fishman (1977) declare that the English language “is the language of diplomacy, the predominant language in which mail is written, the principal language of aviation and radio broadcasting, the first language of nearly 300 million people and an additional language of perhaps that many more.” They assert: “All in all…English is clearly the major link language in the world today.” It is, therefore, the hope of this columnist that this page will contribute to our knowledge of this fascinating, universal medium of expression.

Possessive pronouns differ from possessive nouns in that they do not take the apostrophe (‘s). However, a recurrent usage problem among many users is the insertion of the apostrophe in absolute possessive pronouns (your’s, their’s, it’s and our’s),  

Sometimes, when pronouns with unspecified gender are used, these are often followed up with the forms he/she or him/her. Examples: if anybody asks of me, tell him/her (them) to wait. Every student should submit his/her (their) assignment by Tuesday. ‘Them and their’ are the right words in these circumstances. Some of these forms of expression are not inherently ungrammatical, but they render usage stylistically inelegant. 

In whatever form of communication we engage in, we need to avoid overused phrases (or words) known as clichés. They weaken the quality of our writing or speech. Some of these are: axe to grind: be that as it may: bear in mind: by and large: explore every avenue; the fact of the matter; in the meantime; in the near future; in view of the fact; last but not least; leave no stone unturned; needless to say; on the contrary; the man in the street; to all intents and purposes; by the way…you can expand the trite list. 

In concluding this random prefatory, it is instructive that we develop a critical attitude towards words, their forms and functions. That way, a good command of the English language is ensured as long as this approach is sustained.

There are so many points to underscore, but since this is no pedagogical column, we leave all that to routine encounters in and outside the media.

Current (please, note the emphasis) dictionaries, other reference sources and online channels should be used carefully–-not blindly or perfunctorily! Words have copious meanings/etymologies and contextualization. This point is very critical in our appreciation and application of the language. It cannot be domesticated as some people advocate in formal (standard) settings! The rich history of the evolution of the language and its received aggregation (what some people call ‘Englishes’ and ‘Englishness’) cannot confer authority on ‘pidgin’ or any other local version like the ‘Nigerian English’ (like ‘beer parlour’ instead of pub or public house)—at least for now! 

Once again, you are welcome as we take it from here fully next week. Constructive reactions, comments, observations, contributions and suggestions are welcome. Let us continually exchange ideas on the use of the English language and its grammar. There is no teacher in this our class/marketplace as we are all learners/scholars, in search of the purity of this universal medium of communication.

On (not under, as some politicians say!) this scholastic platform I stand.


FROM Wednesday, November 27 edition of DAILY SUN comes this error: “Imo student wins MAU’s quiz price (prize).” Have things gone so bad that a sub-editor cannot differentiate between the nouns “price” and “prize”? Keep up the good work, worthy brother.

Dr. Stanley Nduagu/Aba/08062925996


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