Are you being heard, or are you being had?

Sonala Olumhense

I write this as a father.

As a father, I learned the power of a teacher the hard way.  That “teacher” was my preschool son’s babysitter.

He had only been with her for a couple of weeks when he came home with the word, “mens.”   It is not in your English dictionary, but he was using it as the plural of “man.”  He got it from the babysitter; English was not her first language.

We pulled the boy from there faster than a Usain Bolt gold run, but it took over six months of gentle intervention to get that infernal word out of the child’s head.

I also write this as the relative of a Nigerian college graduate who angrily told me not long ago to delete his resume from my records.

Earlier, he had invited me to join his job search.  His resume was not stellar, but it was not bad.  The problem was when I had him pen a short description of himself to help me introduce his quest to some friends.

When I read it, I knew I had a serious problem.  I proposed a plan of action, involving additional study, which would prepare him for that narrow door which leads to jobs: interviews.

That was when he told me what he thought of my advice.

Now, it is commonly acknowledged that the quality of education in Nigeria has fallen.  This is evident in the standard of English, our official language.

There are many examples of this available in public life, but I have chosen to focus on the usage which offends me the most: the spreading epidemic over the simple word, have.

This simple verb, in its basic forms, expresses possession or attribute, and there is usually no problem in grammatical usage: I have a plan; She has a book.

But it is in the use of the form, HAD — the simple past tense, past plural and past participle — that causes so much tumult.

Watching Nigerian television and reading the media provide daily evidence of the epidemic.  Social media and the blogs are loaded with it.  Politicians, journalists and celebrities are tripping over.

What this means is that (some) teachers, having learned it perhaps from other teachers who thought they knew what they were teaching, are perpetuating and perpetrating this menace.Remember: if you have a bad teacher marinating your child’s head in drivel, you may never be able to wash it off.

Yes, I know that English is not our language, but some mistakes can be extremely expensive.   And you don’t want your children to travel with an inferiority complex because they listened to the wrong person or read the wrong newspaper.

Here is an example of what I am talking about.  Reporting an event in Kaduna last Monday, one newspaper said former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo claimed to have identified the factors impeding Nigeria’s development.

The report quoted him as saying, “Look, don’t worry unduly about the mistake the generation before you had made…I will accept that my generation had done a number of wrong things.”

Notice the awful use of “had” in both sentences.  A student who writes this grammar for a teacher who has the same poor grasp of tenses may well score an ‘A’ for that teacher, but in a respectable environment, he will be ostracized, at least.

Obasanjo’s first sentence should have been something like “…the mistakes made by the generation before,” or perhaps, “mistakes made by the preceding generation;” and “…my generation has done a number of things wrong,” or “my generation did a number of things wrong.”

A second newspaper provided a better account of the event: “Former president Olusegun Obasanjo yesterday admitted that his generation has failed Nigeria in their efforts at taking it to the ‘Promised Land.’  He, however, quickly added that what they missed out in growing the nation economically, they have been able to deliver in a united and stable country under a democratic dispensation.”

A third newspaper, like the first, reported Obasanjo as saying “the present generation of leaders had failed the country because they lacked the focus and commitment to move the nation forward.”

According to its account, Obasanjo “said they (his generation) had fared well in keeping Nigeria united under a stable democratic dispensation.”

But unlike the case of the first newspaper, this one—not Obasanjo—is doubly guilty because it was paraphrasing, not employing a direct quote.  It should have reported him as saying “…(his generation)(has) fared well in keeping Nigeria united under a stable democratic dispensation.”

For various reasons, a reporter may receive a grammatically-flawed speech to work with.  That is no excuse for errors in it to make the front page.

In a recent article someone sent to me, the writer appeared blessed with literary sophistication, but his work had a lot of booby traps.

He wrote: “Our national fortune had been intricably woven with the biographies, life and times of Balewa, Ironsi, Gowon, Muritala, Obasanjo, Shagari, Buhari, Babangida, Shonekan, Abacha, Abubakar, Obasanjo, Yaradua, Jonathan and lastly Buhari…”

Had?  No!

“…It had been a lamentable tragedy of errors. Our leadership had lacked love, fire, ambition, sense of history, geopolitical vision, competitiveness, set goals, management acumen and honesty…majority had not ventured to promote national growth, national efficiency and greatness.  Tafawa Balewa…had done his level best in initiating the first Development Plan.”

Had?  Absolutely not!

The error comes from failing to grasp the essence of the past perfect tense, which ties together two events, both in the past.  The work of that tense is to clarify that one of those events happened before the other.

That is, “It had been a lamentable comedy of errors” is not wrong in itself.  But the sentence ends without the second event required to provide temporal clarification of the “comedy” to which it alludes.  Something such as: “It had been a lamentable comedy of errors until the legislature adopted a new law…”[Because it does not matter which of the two past events is stated first, that sentence could also have been: “Until the legislature adopted a new law, it had been a comedy of errors.”]

Similarly: “I will accept that my generation had done a number of wrong things but we made amends in the years that followed.”  “We made amends in the years that followed, but I will accept that my generation had done a number of things wrong.”

One of the dimensions of this problem in Nigerian English is in sentence constructions in which the writer or speaker seems to feel that to situate something in the past requires the past participle.  They write, “I had made a mistake,” or “She had travelled to Abuja” when they merely mean, “I made a mistake” and “She travelled to Abuja.”

On its own, each sentence is wrong unless amended by information regarding what “had” refers to.  “I was already in London before I realised I had made a mistake.”  “She had travelled to Abuja before finding out her brother was in Ibadan.”

The mainstream media traditionally has structures to ensure quality control.  The time has come for their managers to ensure that those structures have not been had, and to find creative ways to produce publications that will be respected not only now and here, but elsewhere.

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Source: Punch

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