Top election-related grammatical errors in Nigerian English

In this inaugural edition of my grammar column, which had appeared for over a year in the Peoples Daily, I chronicle some of the recurring, hard-to-ignore grammatical errors that I've observed in the news coverage and commentaries on the just-concluded elections.

1. "Casted votes." I listened to Channel TV's live stream of the governorship elections the other and heard educated Nigerian pundits - some of them professors - talking about votes that had been "casted." Similarly, in an April 16, 2011 story titled, "Jonathan votes in presidential election," Vanguard wrote: "Goodluck Jonathan has CASTED his vote in today's presidential election at his Otuoke ward in Bayelsa." Cast is an irregular verb that doesn't change form to reflect the change of tense. Its base form is "cast," its past tense is "cast," and its past participle is still "cast." It shares the same pattern as "put" (who says "putted"?), "let," "cut," "hurt," etc. So "casted" is wrong for the same reason that "putted," "letted," "cutted," "hurted," etc are wrong. The error arises, I think, from the fact that "broadcast," another irregular verb, can correctly be rendered as "broadcasted." In other words, while "broadcasted" is an acceptable alternative for "broadcast," "cast" remains "cast" irrespective of its tense.

2. "Guber race," "Guber polls," "Guber candidates," etc. Nigerian newspaper headline writers have invented the word "guber" as the short form of "gubernatorial," an Americanism that means "related to a governor." Unfortunately, the word has gone from headlinese (i.e., the peculiar English of newspaper headlines) to demotic speech in Nigeria. But even Americans who invented the word "gubernatorial" don't have a short form for it. That leaves Nigerians as the only people in the English-speaking world who use "guber" as a stand-in for "gubernatorial." That wouldn't have been a problem except for the fact that in American English "guber" is an informal word for facial pimple. It's also jocular medical slang for tumor.

3. "Results of elections upturned." This error takes several forms, but the operative word here is "upturn." Nigerian journalists write "upturn" when they should write "overturn." These two words are completely unrelated. To overturn is to rule against or to cancel officially. "Upturn," however, is never used as a verb in the sense of "reverse" or "overturn." When "upturn" is used as a noun, it usually means an upward movement or improvement in business activity, etc. (Example: There has been an upturn in the economy). The opposite of upturn is downturn. Americans prefer "uptrend" to "upturn" to denote boom in business activity. When "upturn" is used as an adjective (that is, when it is rendered as "upturned"), it is traditionally used in two senses. The first is as a synonym for "turned upside down" and the second is to describe the position of a person's nose. When a nose is described as upturned, it means it is turned up at the end. So it is more proper to talk of election results or electoral victories being "overturned" by the courts.

4. "Running neck to neck." The correct form of the idiom is "neck and neck." An abiding feature of idioms is grammatical fixity. That is, you can't arbitrarily change the syntactic properties of idioms. "Neck and neck," which means inconclusive as to outcome or just even in a race or comparison or competition, can also be rendered as "head-to-head" (maybe that's where the "neck-to-neck" error comes from) or "nip and tuck." For the sake of variety, or what stylisticians call "elegant variation," I hope our journalists will try out these alternatives. I am sick of seeing "neck-to-neck" mentioned in every story about close electoral contests.

5. "Shoot-at-sight order." In reporting the post-election communal upheavals that invariably erupt in Nigeria, our journalists habitually describe government's orders to shoot recalcitrant rioters as "shoot-at-sight" orders. But the correct rendering of the idiom is "shoot on sight." Another alternative, which I actually prefer because of its unequivocalness," is "shoot to kill."

6. "Electioneering campaign." This is a tautology, i.e., a useless repetition. Both "electioneering" and "campaign" mean the same thing. I think the source of the error is the mistaken notion that "electioneering" is an adjective that modifies "campaign." But electioneering is a noun, NOT an adjective. It simply means "political campaign," the campaign of a candidate to be elected. So it is sufficient to just write about "Goodluck Jonathan's electioneering for the office of president" and spare us the verbal superfluity of an "electioneering campaign," which actually adds up to "campaign campaign"!

7. "Contest an elective position." This is not exactly an error; it's only an obsolescent usage. In contemporary Standard English in both America and Britain, "contest" is now scarcely used as a verb to express the sense of competing for an elective office against other candidates. The more usual words are "run" and "vie." When "contest" is used as a verb, it is often to indicate that something is being made the subject of dispute, contention, or litigation. So Americans would say General Buhari ran for the office of president and is contesting the outcome of the elections. But Indians, Pakistanis, and citizens of other former British colonies still use "contest" the way we use it in Nigeria.

8. "Lame duck." A lame duck is an elected official who is still in office but not slated to continue either because he or she chooses not to seek re-election or because of constitutional term limits. It is also used to refer to an elected official who is continuing in office during the period between an election defeat and a successor's assumption of office, such as Oladimeji Bankole, Governor Alao Akala, etc. But even after President Goodluck Jonathan declared that he would run for president months ago, I read stories and commentaries in Nigerian newspapers describing him as a "lame duck." Someone also wrote an article many months ago describing Plateau State governor Jonah Jang, who hasn't served out his first time yet, as a "lame duck." Well, it is only after May 29 that Jonathan and Jang - and others like them - will be lame ducks, not before. Perhaps, people are deploying the extended meaning of the term that denotes a disabled or ineffectual person. But this can be confusing when it's used in an election-related context since the term has a fixed meaning in electoral politics.