I am aware that this article won’t endear me to several of my thin-skinned Buhari/APC partisan readers who, interestingly, wildly acclaimed my past articles that pilloried former First Lady Patience Jonathan’s sidesplitting grammatical transgressions. But I am never one to shy away from embarking on what I’m convinced is a just and fair undertaking because of a fear of backlash from mawkish, hypersensitive crybabies.
In any case, in my Saturday column—and in my Facebook status updates—I have defended Wife of the President Aisha Buhari against Gov. Ayo Fayose’s brash and reckless calumny against her. In an ironic twist, it was her bid to give the lie to Fayose’s charge that she couldn’t visit the US without being arrested that caused her to come here and give a speech at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that is the subject of this column.
Mrs. Aisha Buhari’s speech at the United States Institute of Peace didn’t rise to the level of former First Lady Patience Jonathan’s legendary contortion of English grammar, but it was inexcusably egregious nonetheless, not least because it was supposed to be the product of preparation and forethought.
In general, the speech was riotously incoherent, lacked lexical and semantic discipline, and was peppered with avoidably ugly and elementary grammatical infractions. Mrs. Buhari vacillated between reading from a prepared script and speaking off the cuff. But the prepared speech and Mrs. Buhari’s extemporizations were indistinguishable: both were tortured, infantile, error-ridden, and cringe-worthy. Winston Churchill’s famous putdown of his opponent—”He spoke without a note and almost without a point.”—seems to apply to the Wife of the President. (Watch the video below.)
Below are highlights of the infelicities that stood out like a sore thump during Mrs. Buhari’s 10-minute speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC:
1. Subject-verb agreement. Like Patience Jonathan—and former President Goodluck Jonathan—Aisha Buhari doesn’t seem to have any respect for subject-verb concord rules in English grammar. These howlers illustrate this: “I want to…thank the international community for giving us a solutions…,” “those that needs to be…,” “the school have been running…,” “adult ones that needs the opportunity.”
Most people know that a singular subject (such as “the school”) agrees with a singular verb (such as “has”) and a plural subject (such as “those,” “adult ones”) agrees with a plural verb (such as “need” instead of “needs.”) That means the Wife of the President should have said, “those that need to be,” “the school has been running,” “adult ones that need the opportunity.”
Of course, “a solutions” is a self-evident bloomer: you don’t pluralize a noun that is preceded by the indefinite article “a” because “a” signals nominal singularity. In other words, “a solutions” is both ungrammatical and illogical since it implies nominal plurality and singularity simultaneously. It is either “solutions” or “a solution.”
2. Redundant pronoun. Pronouns typically take the place of a noun and save us the torment of ungainly repetition. That’s why, in Standard English, pronouns don’t typically appear in the same sentence as the nouns they refer to. In her USIP speech, Mrs. Buhari said the following: “As you are all aware, Boko Haram issue, it is a global issue attached to terrorism, which need [sic] to be addressed globally.”
“Boko Haram issue” is the antecedent for the pronoun “it” in the sentence quoted above, which makes the pronoun superfluous since it appears in the same sentence as its antecedent. “Boko Haram is a global issue…” would convey the same meaning—and without the ungrammatical baggage. I admit, though, that redundant pronouns of the kind I identified in Mrs. Buhari’s speech occur in nonstandard native English dialects. But we are talking of an official speech in a formal context in a foreign, English-speaking country.
The sentence also violates the basic principle of pronoun-antecedent agreement. The principle says, “A pronoun usually refers to something earlier in the text (its antecedent) and must agree in number — singular/plural — with the thing to which it refers.” The phrase “which need” refers to “Boko Haram issue,” which is a singular subject that needs a singular verb, i.e., “needs.”
3. A curious resultant “done.” During her speech, Mrs. Buhari praised the University of Maiduguri for remaining open even in the worst moments of Boko Haram insurgency. “The university really done us proud,” she said. This is a misuse of the past participle “done” that linguists call the “resultant done.” It is curious because it is typical of the informal, nonstandard (and sometimes illiterate) speech of the American south.
In Standard English, the sentence would be reworded as, “The university has done us proud.” If we want to be faithful to Mrs. Buhari’s lexical and structural choice, we would rephrase it as, “The university really did us proud.”
4. Buhari’s government as a “recent regime.” Mrs. Buhari puzzlingly referred to her husband’s administration as “the recent regime.” Here is the context: After thanking the “international community” for its military and financial support that led to the defeat of Boko Haram, in a rather awkward transition, the Wife of the President said, “In which the recent regime has done so far considering what we inherited—the level of insecurity in the country—we can now say that we successfully fought the Boko Haram insurgency.”
Apart from the weak, messy transition, that’s some really dizzyingly incoherent verbal blizzard! But the bigger issue is that she called the current administration “a recent regime.” There are two problems with that. First, the word “recent,” especially when it is applied to administrations, implies an immediate past, that is, that which precedes the present. It is both ungrammatical and illogical to speak of an incumbent administration as “recent.”
Second, there is always a tone of disapproval when a government is referred to as a “regime.” That is why the word is often reserved for military and other totalitarian governments. Even the Associated Press Stylebook defines “regime” as “the period in which a person or system was in power, often with a negative connotation. For example, Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Nazi regime.” I hope Mrs. Buhari doesn’t consider her husband as the honcho of a regime.
5. “Academicians.” Mrs. Buhari called university lecturers in the audience “academicians.” Well, it’s OK to refer to university teachers as “academicians” in Nigeria and in other non-native English-speaking countries, but it doesn’t hurt to learn the proper form when you address native speakers in their own territory. Educated native English speakers call university teachers “academics,” not “academicians.”
Here is an abridged version of what I wrote on this in my December 6, 2015 column titled, “Academician” Or “Academic”? Q and A on Nigerian English Errors and Usage”: [A]n ‘academic’ is someone who teaches or conducts research in a higher educational institution, typically in a university. In British and Nigerian English, academics are also called ‘lecturers.’ In American English, they are called ‘professors.’
“An ‘academician,’ on the other hand, is a person who works with or is honored with membership into an academy, that is, an institution devoted to the study and advancement of a specialized area of learning such as the arts, sciences, literature, medicine, music, engineering, etc. Examples of academies are the Nigerian Academy of Letters, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, etc.
“Not all academics are academicians and not all academicians are academics. In other words, you can teach in a university, polytechnic, college of education, etc. and never be made a member of an academy, and you can become a member of an academy without ever being a teacher or a researcher at a higher educational institution. Note that while most academicians are also academics, most academics are never academicians.
“A little note on pragmatics is in order here. Although many dictionaries have entries that say ‘academician’ and ‘academic’ can be synonymous, this isn’t really the case in actual usage, at least among educated native English speakers. It is considered illiterate usage in British and American English to call higher education teachers and researchers ‘academicians’; they are properly called ‘academics.’ Many dictionaries merely capture the entire range of a word’s usage without discriminating socially prestigious usage from uneducated or archaic usage.”
Mrs. Buhari obviously needs a lot more help than she is aware of and is getting. She is grossly ill-served by her speech writer, who also probably manages her social media accounts. The recent grammatical bloopers from her Facebook page (which were quickly cleaned up after she became the object of ridicule on social media) could be an indication that her speech writer is also her social media manager.
Given how much she is thrusting herself into the public eye, her poor grasp of English grammar will soon become grist to the humor mills—like it was for Patience Jonathan. She can avoid this by doing the following: (1) recede to her quiet, unobtrusive self, (2) bone up on basic English grammar, (3) surround herself with people who give a thought to grammatical correctness and completeness, or (4) speak in Fulfulde or Hausa and get an English translator.