Sunday, March 12, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Re: “An advice,” “a good news”: Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English


Another link from my last posting that got lost in transition : Besserwisser

I'm impressed by the very correct English spoken by the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Moïse Katumbi .The British English besserwisser grammarians who genuflect in the direction of their qibla which is Buckingham Palace, can judge for themselves this his spoken performance . I for one understood him perfectly and his performance, in my view, was flawless. I wish that I could speak Mandarin Chinese or French or Lingala or Nigerian English at something like that level.

I don't suppose that the kinds of people who subscribe to the USA-Africa Forum are in need of these kind of language columns, but of course, the English Language scholar could have chosen to be doing it as a do-good social service , a kind of Pied Piper to his English language disciples

It would be far too tedious and almost meaningless to take it item by item, but just this one on advice should suffice. As for the other one, you kick his ass and he says, "I don't understand"

According to The Devil's Dictionary : Advice

"Many people " called his attention (Professor Farooq Kperogi's) to the tweet by Abike Daiquiri-Erewa. To be as precise as he would like everybody to be when observing the changing rules and regulations and laws of strangulation drafted by Her Majesty's Language still undergoing evolution, I should like to ask, " Exactly how many people, drew his attention to what in my personal opinion was an al- right tweet or telegram either as an official or an unofficial communiqué (and I would be prepared to put my head under the guillotine for it) :


I have always assumed that the language employed by the various ministries of foreign affairs the world over is aimed at communicating with fellow citizens and diverse members of the international community and that just like the newsreaders in English in several countries that do not have English as the mother tongue, concessions are made to local accents, language usage, in fact often to accents approximating the national English accent. So in Radio Sweden this is what you hear.

However, strictly speaking, when it comes to grammar or the precise meanings embedded in legalese , foreign ministries had better be extra careful ! The example that comes to mind immediately is UN Resolution 242 which up to today is still experiencing all kinds of twists and arrows of outrageous fortune, all based on differences in opinions about the meaning/s of "occupied territories" and "the occupied territories". Ultimately, the judges as to the implications of the legal meanings are international jurists who insist that the differences cannot be merely local, partisan understandings or interpretations of the English Language as used in international documents / agreements.

In the case under Prof Kperogi's magnifying glass, first and foremost everybody understands the advice that's being given.

Hopefully, the creative writers, poets, dramatists, songsters, will regularise some of what the language police and Her Majesty's "Linguistic sanitary inspector" believe to be highly irregular as used by members of the Naija English Club - the latter a phrase that I got from cousin Kayode Robbin-Coker, himself an HMS ( in Her Majesty's Service) "language sanitary inspector " and a former inspector of schools. (I was infinitely more familiar with our elder, Adeneka Lincoln Robbin-Coker, in his day, a diamond miner...)

This too is cultural :

Rogie: Advice to Schoolgirls

On Sunday, 12 March 2017 18:31:03 UTC+1, Farooq A. Kperogi wrote:
My "Politics of Grammar" column in today's Daily Trust on Sunday:

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 definite 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.

Related Articles:

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Journalism & Emerging Media
School of Communication & Media
Social Science Building 
Room 5092 MD 2207
402 Bartow Avenue
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, Georgia, USA 30144
Cell: (+1) 404-573-9697
Personal website:
Twitter: @farooqkperog
Author of Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World

"The nice thing about pessimism is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised." G. F. Will

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