ELWC 500 (I) – Introduction to Good Writing

The Devil and a 100-year-old Boy

British colonial administrators did not reach my hometown in eastern Kenya until 1915. Prior to the white man’s coming, nobody could speak or write English in that part of my country. Bantu was the only language of communication – and the native speakers spoke undiluted Bantu, unlike in these days

Suddenly, the music changed. The white man came with his language and his school. Children and young adults were begged or forced to enrol as pupils in the nearest school, 2—10km away for some of them.

My grandfather was not one of the early people to accept the white man’s school. When he eventually set foot on a school compound in 1925, he was amazed at the white man and his tongue. “He seemed to speak through the nose,” he told my grandma on his return from school on that first day.

My story, as it concerns this course, begins from the day I stumbled on my grandpa’s English exercise book and discovered that one sentence contained in the English notes he took in 1928 also appeared in my father’s notes in 1940 and in mine in 1972: Sango is a boy. What is more, my own child was also taught that “Sango is a boy” in 2002!

Can you beat that? This Sango must be immortal or never ages. He was a boy in 1928, 1940, 1972 and 2002. Meanwhile, my grandfather and my father who read that “Sango is a boy” are both dead, and each died in old age. I’m now an old man and, in three years, my child will cease to be a boy. Yet, Sango is a boy!

The four-word sentence still remains the English teacher’s favourite example of a complete sentence during lessons for beginners: Sango is a boy. Mala is a girl. The characters change with the common names associated with each culture. In Nigeria, for instance, Obi or Kunle or Musa replaces Sango; Ada or Bisi or Safiya replaces Mala.

Teachers like to illustrate with “Sango is a boy” because it contains the three main parts of a typical sentence: subject, verb and predicate. The subject (Sango) is a noun; then there are a verb, an article and another noun.

How often have we written sentences that omit the article “a” or “an” or “the” because we think it is not important? Some people even omit the subject, as in “Is a boy” or “Am about to go”, when they should have said “It’s a boy” or “I’m about to go”.

Good writing, which must be understood by the hearer or reader, begins and ends with the sentence. Where a sentence is lengthy, it should flow smoothly; if not, it would mar otherwise good writing. Step by step, I grew to write: Sango, who was a boy just a decade ago, has become an exceptionally accomplished journalist that writes a newspaper column and hosts a television show in Nairobi. I can break that sentence into four and still convey the same message. You too can. So, if your long sentence can’t flow easily like mine, there’s nothing wrong in writing “Sango is a boy”. Why do we often make our sentences so complicated that they lose their meanings or fail to communicate? Must every sentence be long or complicated? No. Not when the last thing you just read is also a sentence.

My grandfather rarely used one or two words in a sentence; my father used them reluctantly; I use them often; and my child, born and bred in the age of the Internet and ICT, uses them more often than I do. The trend shows that language is indeed dynamic.

In my school days, I didn’t find it difficult to build a vocabulary. Once I learned to put words together, and to read, I could always understand words and their meanings with ease. Our teacher in primary school, Mr Oshana, made sure we recited several books in class. He monitored our pronunciation especially through the exercises he gave us to do every other day. He did not permit us to speak Bantu or Kikuyu in class.

I count myself lucky because I took our English classes seriously. There were classmates who believed they only needed a working knowledge of the white man’s language and therefore showed greater interest in Mathematics or Health Science or Religious Knowledge.

I soon learned that no teacher could teach one everything they needed to know. Interest is paramount. Once one developed interest in learning – English, in our case – one would follow his curiosity and discover more things.

Nature, however, makes allowance for a second chance. Some who missed out in primary school were awakened at the secondary level, though they had to do more work. But those who lost out in the study of English as a second or third language in both primary and secondary schools hardly caught up. They performed worse than they really deserved even in other subjects, since they wrote answers to their Physics and Biology exam questions in English, not Bantu or Swahili or Hausa.

Such deficiency is obviously carried over to workplaces. While in Accra, Ghana, six years ago, I read several official letters containing abominable errors. Even a word like “thank” was written as “tank”. Privilege became “priviledge” and “fowl” turned “foul”.

Indians are perhaps different. Many Indians don’t pretend they know English more than the people of England. They may be hewing it as they do timber, but the grammatical mistakes they make are minimal. Of the peoples of the former British colonies I’ve visited, Indians are perhaps the least offenders in the use of English. Whenever it’s convenient for them, they easily break into Hindi or Dravidian or Indo-Aryan. For the essence of every language is to communicate.

Not so in Nigeria, one country that has offered me an opportunity to see mediocrity at work. Writing well doesn’t seem to matter to many. In an official budget statement of a nation, reference was once made to “walking capital” when the writer meant “working capital”. Of course, Nigeria has achieved notoriety for making provision for “walking capital” – capital that regularly flies out of the country’s shores and lands in Swiss banks!

Having lived in Nigeria for 17 years now, I have also seen a gross manifestation of ego. Even when they converse with their brothers from the same village, they prefer to speak English and not their mother tongue. Yet they commit blunders.

From Ghana to India and from Kenya to Nigeria, the whipping boy of all murderers of the English language has been the “printer’s devil”. This is another incarnate of Sango or Obi – the excuse never dies. Even with advancements in computer technology and printing, in auto readers and checkers, and in other wonders of the Internet, this devil lives. But they are hardly found in the streets of London or New York. They live only in India, Ghana or Nigeria.

Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya harbour many examples too. A state governor in Tanzania once told journalists that he would deal with trouble shooters. Huh? Is it troublemakers he would befriend? He probably thought that trouble shooters and troublemakers meant the same thing, and he didn’t want to use the “lowly” word troublemakers.

A president is the least expected to commit grammatical blunders in a written speech because of the coterie of aides surrounding him. Yet, you struggle to cover your ears while listening to many a Nigerian president. Not just in speeches presented extempore, but also in official speeches. In a statement issued by President Goodluck Jonathan on March 31, 2015, he said, “I congratulate all Nigerians for successfully going through the process of the March 28 General Elections with the commendable enthusiasm and commitment that was demonstrated nationwide.”

How many errors can you pick from that single sentence? There are at least two grievous ones, apart from the strange preference for capitalising the first letters in “general” and “elections”.

And because the Nigerian leader had phoned his challenger in that election, Muhammadu Buhari, to accept defeat, Nigerian newspapers had as their headline the next day, “Jonathan concedes defeat” or “Jonathan concedes victory”. Since then, many other defeated politicians have been conceding “defeat” while others have been conceding “victory” on the airwaves and in the newspapers. Governor-elect Nyesom Wike of Rivers State had to receive “these informations” on a TV programme. Someone else has been celebrating his 50th “birthday anniversary” with “pomp and pageantry”.

Then, welcome to the Office of Secretary to Government of the Federation, Nigeria. In a public statement announcing the new heads of 26 federal agencies, in February 2016, the Roman numeral for 4 (four) was misspelled three times in a series: iiii, xiiii and xxiiii. If the computer on which that statement was typed had “spellcheck” installed on it, the correct numeral would have appeared automatically as iv, xiv and xxiv once the typist touched the ENTER key at the end of a preceding item. But nobody cared. And never mind that the computers in Nigeria’s seat of governance are always bought with huge money. The SGF, Engr. David Babachir Lawal, proudly signed the statement and some print media carried it unedited. Nigeria is probably a nation where nothing really matters.



  1. What claim(s) in the narrative do you doubt?
  2. In fewer than 100 words, state how you would identify a well-written article, news story or book.

Drop your answer as a comment BELOW, or send it to your coach at [email protected].


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