ELWC 500 (II) – Introduction to Good Writing

The Hunt for an Old Enemy

In Ghana, I was once offered a local drug said to be the antidote to pile that had been worrying me for six years or longer. Just before I paid for a bottle of the medicine, my attention was taken to the label on it: Take 5L x 33 times par day. The misspelling of per did not worry me much. But five litres 33 times per day? I quickly put the bottle down.

The manuals of several electronic, electrical, mechanical and other products from Asia are full of such dangerous errors. Just because the manufacturers have not considered hiring a language expert necessary. On the web, the culprits are as many as sand grains. Each country can have its own version of English, but why would one assume that other citizens of the world must understand their brand of English?

On a truck I saw in Lagos, Nigeria, was “Lef am for God” [I later learned the writer meant “Leave it to God”.]

I was on a panel of interviewers sometime in 2003 in Tanzania. Our guests were looking for jobs. One of them performed well during the oral interview, except that when we examined his application letter, he forgot to put NOT in a sentence. He wrote, “Given the opportunity to serve, I will injure your company’s reputation in any way.” Eh? What should have happened to the brilliant jobseeker? He lost the job anyway.

I used to believe that the first word every person learns to write correctly is their name. Nigerians proved to me that I was mistaken. In 1998 I read about new parties being formed to contest the country’s elections in 1999. One was the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But that party is now officially known as the Peoples Democratic Party. I don’t know when somebody swore an affidavit to change its name. Perhaps because the two names share an acronym (and an apostrophe is considered dispensable), no one seems to have noticed the difference.

Also, the ANPP that was originally “All Nigeria People’s Party” became “All Nigeria Peoples Party” until it dissolved into a mega party (APC) that did not fail to walk into the same pit. The APC gladiators announced their new party’s name in February 2013: All Progressive Congress. When it was time to file papers with the registering authority (INEC), APC turned to “All Progressives Congress”.

APGA was to be “All Progressive Grand Alliance” until some erudite politicians chose “All Progressives Grand Alliance” unannounced.

Does it mean that Nigerian politicians don’t know English? Or is this Nigerians’ way of doing things? Sloppiness can never be a virtue. One who is not careful in “little” matters cannot be careful in great or important matters.

Luckily for the murderers, there can’t be an error in a name so long as the owner wants it so. But rather than disrespect the native speakers of English, the Nigerian politicians should have written their parties’ names in their local languages. I see originality in the name Afrobeat singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti proposed for his party in 1978: Chop I Chop Party.

English language murderers and printer’s devils have their uses in Nigeria, however. A typist’s error made Adamu Ciroma governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria in 1975. The “kingmaker-secretary” had been asked to type a statement announcing the appointment of Liman Ciroma, an economist, as governor of the CBN. She chose the more familiar Ciroma, a graduate of history who was a journalist. After it was announced on radio, then head of state Gen. Murtala Muhammed was said to have kept faith with the typist in order to not embarrass his government. Several other typists are known to have given jobs to their candidates while typing “the final list of successful candidates” after interviews in government offices, because the “oga at the top” wouldn’t care or lacked the ability to proofread his work.

Only in Nigeria are offices “zoned” to the north or south, and “all protocols” are observed especially when the governor is “on seat”.

Perhaps what matters to these Nigerians is illicit wealth. In the written speeches of presidents, governors, judges, senators and other ranking Nigerians, the English language is routinely assaulted. If only there had been a court that convicted one of language violence!

On-air personality

On radio and television, some presenters are constantly rounding up (instead of rounding off) their programmes in strange accents. One newspaper editorial knocks the culprits thus:

Today’s radio and TV presenters — they now go by the pseudo-exotic appellation ‘On-Air Personality’ (OAP) — appear out to force on listeners their affected English/American accents, which drip of nauseous fakery. Perceptive listeners are at a loss why these OAPs aim for their highfaluting accents that are patently phoney to all. 

The English language has travelled around the world. Only an inveterate anglophile would expect that language to remain the same after its global voyage and ‘conversations’ with other tongues. While we expect radio presenters to have a good grasp of the oral nuances of English, only the neo-colonial suffering from an identity crisis among them would ape the ‘Queen’s English’ when the fare is largely meant for Nigerians. There is something called ‘Nigerian English’. This is taught under various course titles in our universities. We are content that it is not inferior to the ‘Queen’s English’. It is in fact a legitimate, comprehensible covering of English in our indigenous garbs, which has earned its right to be heard everywhere Nigerians speak it, including the airwaves.

Therefore, let OAPs speak to the country in this language, and stop forthwith their pathetic attempts to sound British or American.
Should we talk about mispronounced English words? I think Nigeria’s first lady in 2014 should take the lead. Mama Patience knows how to slaughter English without caring a hoot. Yet she speaks impeccable “pidgin”: e.g. “Na only you waka come?” And yet she would cling to English as if she was forced to do so. I wonder why she and other public figures didn’t make use of interpreters or translators when addressing an audience that won’t understand their mother tongue. Wouldn’t that be one way of creating jobs for linguists in Nigeria?

Across India, Ghana, Kenya and, of course, Nigeria, almost everyone is doing it: pronouncing words the way they like. Does the reader know, for instance, the correct pronunciation of “Peugeot” – the popular car of the 1980s? It is not “Pijot”; it is “podzo”. [You may wish to now discover the pronunciation of Citroen and Volkswagen.] You ought to know, also, that “what” is not “kwot” but “wot”; “when” is not “kwen” but “wen”. In this course, you will learn – or be reminded of – hundreds of other commonly mispronounced words.

Back to Mama Patience of Nigeria. Because the first lady has been allowed to murder English unencumbered by the law, she has gone further to murder human beings. She once killed her husband (the president) when she addressed “my fellow widows”. During the 2015 electioneering, she said her husband’s challenger Muhammadu Buhari was brain-dead!

Yet she is not alone. Early in 2008, an appeal court judge mispronounced “indictment” several times in a lead judgment: rather than “indaitment”, it was “indiktment”. I have listened to a Senate president struggling with “paradigm” – he said “paradigum”. A governor said “oars” was “ooaas”, not “os”.



  1. What claim(s) in the narrative do you doubt?
  2. In 25 to 35 words: what problems prevent you from writing better than you do now?

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


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