By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
For those who don’t know, “boo-boo” is an informal American-English term for “an embarrassing mistake.” Every Nigerian knows that good grammar isn’t President Goodluck Jonathan’s strong suit. I was probably the first to publicly call attention to this fact in my April 16, 2010 article about then Acting President Jonathan’s visit to the US.
In the article, titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing,” I observed, among other things, that during the Q and A session at the Council on Foreign Relations Jonathan “couldn’t articulate a coherent thought, hardly made a complete sentence, went off on inconsequential and puerile tangents, murdered basic grammar with reckless abandon, repeated trifles ad nauseam, was embarrassingly stilted, and generally looked and talked like a timid high school student struggling to remember his memorized lines in a school debate.” I concluded that he was “unfathomably clueless” and not “emotionally and socially prepared for the job of a president—yet.”
Almost three years after, the president hasn’t changed a bit.
But his January 23, 2013 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour will probably go down in the annals as his worst international outing as a president, particularly because of the insensate ferocity with which he murdered elementary rules of English grammar.
This isn’t an attempt to ridicule the president’s deficiencies in English. Nor is it an analysis of his interview. Since I write about grammar, I thought it was appropriate that I use the president’s CNN interview, which millions of Nigerians watched, as a teaching moment. This is precisely because the usage patterns of the elite of any country, especially of the president who is the most important political and cultural figure in a country, tend to get naturalized and imitated by the general population over time.
I have listed below some of the rankest grammatical bloopers that the president committed during the CNN interview.I have left out clumsy, semantically puzzling constructions that, in my judgment, were the consequence of the familiar, excusable pressures of impromptu dialogic exchange.
1. “Thank you.” Christiane Amanpour started the interview by saying “Goodluck Jonathan, thank you very much for joining me from Davos.” The president’s response to this courteous expression of gratitude was “thank you.” Again, at the end of the interview when Amanpour said, “President Goodluck Jonathan, thank you for joining me,” the president responded by saying “thank you.”
That is not the conventional response to an expression of gratitude in the English language. When someone says “thank you” to you, conversational courtesy in English requires you to respond with such fixed phrases as “you’re welcome,” “(it’s) my pleasure,” etc. Other less familiar responses are “think nothing of it” and “don’t mention it” (which is chiefly British, although it’s now going out of circulation in contemporary British English.) In very casual contexts, it’s usual for people to say “(it’s) not a problem,” “sure,” “you bet,” “not at all,” “any time,” etc.
It is neither conventional nor idiomatic to say “thank you” to a “thank you.”
2. “Committed to work with…” In response to a question about the insurgency in Mali, President Jonathan said, “And that is why the Nigerian government is totally committed to work with other nationals, other friendly governments to make sure that we contain the problems in Mali.” In grammar, the verb that comes after “committed to” is always in the progressive tense, that is, it always takes an “ing” form. So the president should properly say “we are totally committed to working with…”
3. Subject-verb agreement. This rule states that a singular subject agrees with a singular verb (that is, a verb with an “s” at the end) and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb (that is, a verb without an “s” at the end). It is obvious that the president has a continuing challenge with subject-verb agreement. This comes out clearly in all his media interviews and extempore speeches. For instance, in response to a journalist’s question about the Libyan crisis during a “State of the Nation” media chat in 2011, the president famously said, “Libyan crisis is like a pot of water dropped and everything scatter.”
Of course, it should properly be “everything scatters” since “everything” is a singular subject that always agrees with a singular verb. Perhaps, the president was interlarding his speech with Nigerian Pidgin English (where the phrase “everything scatter scatter” popularized by Nigerian pop-singer Eedris Abdulkareem is standard and means “everything is upside down”).
But during the Amanpour interview, in response to another question on Libya, the president again said, “the issue of Libya try to create more problems in the sub region.” Well, it should be “the issue of Libya tries to create…” because “the issue,” which modifies the verb in the sentence, is a singular subject. The president clearly has not the vaguest idea what subject-verb agreement means.
4. “Ghaddafi was thrown.” Who threw Ghaddafi? From where was he thrown? The president probably meant to say “Ghaddafi was overthrown.”
5. “Weapons enter into hands of non-state actors.” This is undoubtedly Nigerian Pidgin English where “enter” functions as a catch-all verb for a whole host of things such as “enter a bike” (for “ride a bike”), “enter ya shoes” (for “wear your shoes”), etc. The president meant to say “weapons got into the hands of non-state actors.”
6. “And I have said it severally…” Here, the president fell into a popular Nigerian English error: the misuse of “severally” to mean “several times.” This is what I wrote in a previous article titled “Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English”: “Perhaps the trickiest of the adverbs we misuse is the word ‘severally.’ We often use the word as if it meant ‘several times.’ It is typical for Nigerians to say ‘I have told you severally that I don’t like that!’ or ‘I have been severally arrested by the police.’ In Standard English, however, ‘severally’ does not mean ‘several times’; it only means individually, singly, independently, without others, etc., as in ‘the clothes were hung severally.’ This means the clothes are apart from each other and don’t touch each other. Strikingly odd, not so?”
7. “They should try and filter the truth.” This is the full context of this odd sentence: Amanpour told President Jonathan that the US State Department has said that police brutality has killed more Nigerians than Boko Haram has. This outraged the president who said the following in response: “The State Department from the United States they have, they have the means of knowing the truth. They should try and filter the truth.”
Now, to filter (out) is to “remove or separate (suspended particles, wavelengths of radiation, etc.) from (a liquid, gas, radiation, etc.) by the action of a filter.” Example: “Filter out the impurities.” By metaphorical extension, if someone “filters the truth,” as President Jonathan is urging the US State Department to do, they are actually removing the truth which, in essence, means they are lying. In other words, Jonathan is asking the US government to ignore the truth and embrace falsehood. Of course, that is not what he meant. But that is what he comes across as saying.
8. “…before the bulb can light.” This is a semantically and structurally awkward construction. It’s probably the translation of the president’s native language, which is fine. But it is confusing for people who don’t speak his language. You can light a bulb with something, such as a battery, but can a bulb “light”? The bulb has no agency. Perhaps, the president meant to say “before the bulb can light up.” “Light up” is a fixed verb phrase.