President Goodluck Jonathan’s Grammatical Boo-Boos

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Goodluck-Jonathan1-600x516

For those who don’t know, “boo-boo” is an informal American-English term for “an embarrassing mistake.” Every Nigerian knows that good grammar isn’t President Goodluck Jonathan’s strong suit. I was probably the first to publicly call attention to this fact in my April 16, 2010 article about then Acting President Jonathan’s visit to the US.

In the article, titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing,” I observed, among other things, that during the Q and A session at the Council on Foreign Relations Jonathan “couldn’t articulate a coherent thought, hardly made a complete sentence, went off on inconsequential and puerile tangents, murdered basic grammar with reckless abandon, repeated trifles ad nauseam, was embarrassingly stilted, and generally looked and talked like a timid high school student struggling to remember his memorized lines in a school debate.” I concluded that he was “unfathomably clueless” and not “emotionally and socially prepared for the job of a president—yet.”

Almost three years after, the president hasn’t changed a bit.

But his January 23, 2013 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour will probably go down in the annals as his worst international outing as a president, particularly because of the insensate ferocity with which he murdered elementary rules of English grammar.

This isn’t an attempt to ridicule the president’s deficiencies in English. Nor is it an analysis of his interview. Since I write about grammar, I thought it was appropriate that I use the president’s CNN interview, which millions of Nigerians watched, as a teaching moment. This is precisely because the usage patterns of the elite of any country, especially of the president who is the most important political and cultural figure in a country, tend to get naturalized and imitated by the general population over time.

I have listed below some of the rankest grammatical bloopers that the president committed during the CNN interview.I have left out clumsy, semantically puzzling constructions that, in my judgment, were the consequence of the familiar, excusable pressures of impromptu dialogic exchange.

1. “Thank you.” Christiane Amanpour started the interview by saying “Goodluck Jonathan, thank you very much for joining me from Davos.” The president’s response to this courteous expression of gratitude was “thank you.” Again, at the end of the interview when Amanpour said, “President Goodluck Jonathan, thank you for joining me,” the president responded by saying “thank you.”

That is not the conventional response to an expression of gratitude in the English language. When someone says “thank you” to you, conversational courtesy in English requires you to respond with such fixed phrases as “you’re welcome,” “(it’s) my pleasure,” etc. Other less familiar responses are “think nothing of it” and “don’t mention it” (which is chiefly British, although it’s now going out of circulation in contemporary British English.) In very casual contexts, it’s usual for people to say “(it’s) not a problem,” “sure,” “you bet,” “not at all,” “any time,” etc.

It is neither conventional nor idiomatic to say “thank you” to a “thank you.”

2. “Committed to work with…” In response to a question about the insurgency in Mali, President Jonathan said, “And that is why the Nigerian government is totally committed to work with other nationals, other friendly governments to make sure that we contain the problems in Mali.” In grammar, the verb that comes after “committed to” is always in the progressive tense, that is, it always takes an “ing” form. So the president should properly say “we are totally committed to working with…”

3. Subject-verb agreement. This rule states that a singular subject agrees with a singular verb (that is, a verb with an “s” at the end) and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb (that is, a verb without an “s” at the end). It is obvious that the president has a continuing challenge with subject-verb agreement. This comes out clearly in all his media interviews and extempore speeches. For instance, in response to a journalist’s question about the Libyan crisis during a “State of the Nation” media chat in 2011, the president famously said, “Libyan crisis is like a pot of water dropped and everything scatter.”

Of course, it should properly be “everything scatters” since “everything” is a singular subject that always agrees with a singular verb. Perhaps, the president was interlarding his speech with Nigerian Pidgin English (where the phrase “everything scatter scatter” popularized by Nigerian pop-singer Eedris Abdulkareem is standard and means “everything is upside down”).

But during the Amanpour interview, in response to another question on Libya, the president again said, “the issue of Libya try to create more problems in the sub region.” Well, it should be “the issue of Libya tries to create…” because “the issue,” which modifies the verb in the sentence, is a singular subject. The president clearly has not the vaguest idea what subject-verb agreement means.

4. “Ghaddafi was thrown.” Who threw Ghaddafi? From where was he thrown? The president probably meant to say “Ghaddafi was overthrown.”

5. “Weapons enter into hands of non-state actors.” This is undoubtedly Nigerian Pidgin English where “enter” functions as a catch-all verb for a whole host of things such as “enter a bike” (for “ride a bike”), “enter ya shoes” (for “wear your shoes”), etc. The president meant to say “weapons got into the hands of non-state actors.”

6. “And I have said it severally…” Here, the president fell into a popular Nigerian English error: the misuse of “severally” to mean “several times.” This is what I wrote in a previous article titled “Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English”: “Perhaps the trickiest of the adverbs we misuse is the word ‘severally.’ We often use the word as if it meant ‘several times.’ It is typical for Nigerians to say ‘I have told you severally that I don’t like that!’ or ‘I have been severally arrested by the police.’ In Standard English, however, ‘severally’ does not mean ‘several times’; it only means individually, singly, independently, without others, etc., as in ‘the clothes were hung severally.’ This means the clothes are apart from each other and don’t touch each other. Strikingly odd, not so?”

7. “They should try and filter the truth.” This is the full context of this odd sentence: Amanpour told President Jonathan that the US State Department has said that police brutality has killed more Nigerians than Boko Haram has. This outraged the president who said the following in response: “The State Department from the United States they have, they have the means of knowing the truth. They should try and filter the truth.”

Now, to filter (out) is to “remove or separate (suspended particles, wavelengths of radiation, etc.) from (a liquid, gas, radiation, etc.) by the action of a filter.” Example: “Filter out the impurities.” By metaphorical extension, if someone “filters the truth,” as President Jonathan is urging the US State Department to do, they are actually removing the truth which, in essence, means they are lying. In other words, Jonathan is asking the US government to ignore the truth and embrace falsehood. Of course, that is not what he meant. But that is what he comes across as saying.

8. “…before the bulb can light.” This is a semantically and structurally awkward construction. It’s probably the translation of the president’s native language, which is fine. But it is confusing for people who don’t speak his language. You can light a bulb with something, such as a battery, but can a bulb “light”? The bulb has no agency. Perhaps, the president meant to say “before the bulb can light up.” “Light up” is a fixed verb phrase.

Tags from the story
goodluck jonathan

51 Comments

  • You are just a jobless and frustrated PhD holder. It makes no sense because all ESL countries have their own modification of the English language. So you don’t have to mock GEJ for speaking what he knows.
    Get a life.

    • Excellent, you are truly a patriotic citizen of this country. The whole nation’s president make grammatical errors several times and you still think he is better. No wonder! The problem is that you think money is everything. Let me tell you my brother this is serious humiliating story on the face of every patriotic citizen, only if you are a patriotic one.

  • Oga house master,grammer no fit solve nigerias problems O. If u like quote all your english and latin till hell freezes over,english grammer isnt going to help us one tiny bit.
    Do the leaders of russia,germany,japan,france,spain,italy,ukraine,thailand,burma,nepal speak english grammer?
    Actions speak louder than words.
    What is grammer going to change? Not a damn think.

  • A begi no bi gramma we won shop! Una no go see nothin de gud for GEJ. I go tak sa make u kuku writ applicaton to Aso Rock to de tich the President gramma. Na Nigeria GEJ go school. No be Proff dem teach am? It’s not easy to rule. It’s possible for you to write all these Things without calling names. You are only looking for cheap popularity.

  • Everyone loves to speak well…of course…what we see in the president is just what happens to a large percentage of Nigerians….he was also born in the system. I always say learning of Language shouldn’t be primarly by formal means which is what we see of English in Nigeria………..his fault: as president (or a young student), he should have taken the pain to go through that very tedious process of being a great english speaker. Even more tedious when people around you are not good speakers.

    *hope there was no blunder in my comment? I’m also learning…..

    • But you should at least be patriotic, patriotic enough to accept the fact that the number one citizen cannot correctly make a speech, that is a shame on every single Nigerian.

  • Nawa oo.. Some nigerians sha… Even though he is nt dat fluent in english dat does nt mean dat he is not better dan u in everything. At least til u die he can feed you, and he is even more patriotic andresponsible dat you.. Its a jobless person dat can start compiling someones mistake.. U can do better, compile the first lady own too so dat we can knw dat u re the number one genuis in nigeria..

    • And you think money is everything right? Well it is not. You should be mourning that you are not well represented internationally.

  • To communicate effectively and efficiently is very important as a leader. Lets not start justifying GEJ blindly because we are simply from the same ethnic group with him. HE CAN’T SPEAK GOOD ENGLISH AND THAT’S A FACT. As a leader communication is the only way you can prove or make a point to your people and the world at large. Unless he is just one local champion. By the way who cares about his wealth, may be illiterates and ignorant Nigerian’s who have forgotten that it is government resources and not his ancestral inheritance.

  • Imagine urself a grammarian, u are a full blown idiot and boko haramish in style. U only criticize but never make move 4 any beta changes. Think 2ru ur head and not ur legs, wot can gud grammar do to changing d lives of nigerians. Imagine u who claimed to be a laureate mistake INTERLUDE 4 INTERLARDING FOOLISH. Y ‘RE U ALWAYS INTERESTED IN BRINGING CONFUSION EACH TIME GEJ ADDRESSES D PUBLIC. BE WARNED.

    • Kennyuc u nid 2 upgrade ur brain, coz u tink lyk a monkey, hw is he a fool by correcting sum1? Mr president will b very glad by d correction, bt u da dnt knw ur lft 4rm ur ryt wil nt undstnd d meanin of correction. Pls go 2 sch nd learn again, bt dis tym nt in ur village. Nd dnt call northerner boko haram again, coz everybody has his own skeleton in his or her clooseth. Guide ur mouth little brain monkey.

  • Imagine urself a grammarian, u are a full blown idiot and boko haramish in style. U only criticize but never make move 4 any beta changes. Think 2ru ur head and not ur legs, wot can gud grammar do to changing d lives of nigerians. Imagine u who claimed to be a laureate mistake INTERLUDE 4 INTERLARDING FOOLISH. Y ‘RE U ALWAYS INTERESTED IN BRINGING CONFUSION EACH TIME GEJ ADDRESSES D PUBLIC. BE WARNED and mind ur business.

  • You ‘re such a useless and nonsence PhD holder,u wil remain a lecturer in one of those glorified secondary school called University. Can grammer change our economic fortune? How many of the former Northern Presidents did u insult? Wit ur grammertical prowess why ‘re not in Cambridge? Stop insulting elders,if dis is how u ‘re trained,fool.

    • You are all the people in the south so illiterate that they don’t accept corrections. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • English language is never our mother language, definately u are born to make mistakes. Even our so called mother language we are not yet perfect, not to talk of foreign one. At least, we are able to understand wat he is saYing, so as the interviewer. Grammar lords, chill out.

  • Critics never amount to anything in life. If u continue with such xter, u will gradually fade away and vanish from this planet earth. Besides he is your leader, he’s articulate gramatical expression is not what u need. God himself comands not speak evil of a leader. Remember ds the next u speak against the president, u are raising ur hands against God.. Be warn… Is jus that you yourself mr perfect is pooor when it come to research, cuz if are, u will discover that world’s most renowned are not good gramarians and articulate. Pls be warned mr articulate

  • You could as well tell the German chancellor that she, s not a god speaker of the English language, or the French president, because I they always use their indigenous languages even when addressing the international press. You are only after cheap publicity. How much has your English put in your pockets?

  • Pls let us help this our president by givin him beneficial advice and prayers rather than diggin up his flaws. He ȋ̝̊§ also human and bound 2 make mistakes. Remember we all borrowed thus ENGLISH lang.

  • Try and figure out d probs we’re facing in d country, so dat it can be tackled, suggest solutions, i mean do sumtin beta wit ur tym 2 move d country 2 d next level. Secondly am nt a fan of GJ, But its wrong what u did, pointing out his mistakes publicly. Instead of finding a way 2 correct his mistakes secretly. OPPS I HOPE MY ENG. IS CORRECT!

  • This issue is a very sensitive case.While you expect so much from our president when granting d international world audience you also have to understand where he is coming from. There is a major problem in Nigeria and that came as a result of relegating our lingua franca for some strange language.We are not just proud of our mother tongue which we rarely use in schools(there are even punishment for offenders) or any other place. We feel those that speak it are local or out of fashion. It is to this effect that we adopted a foreign language that is now puting us to shame on the foreign scene.Mention any great nation in the world that is not proud of speaking her native language(China,Russia,England,America,Brazil,Japan,India…). We just can’t be the best if we are coming second in our cultural value(imagine how hard it is for some student to understand subjects bcos it is taught in a foreign tongue). For Nigeria to adopt a language as our general means of communication we should have considered how many of our populace can effectively articulate and express themselves well. You want to imagine how many of the so called literate, graduate or educated people truely understand the basis of english language. Again you will discover we have lost our core values a long time ago. All the same to whom much is giving much is expected. Our president should make concious effort to improving his vocabulary,after all they are the policy makers.

  • ‘The bold and not the grammarian rules the world’. Where were you when he was contesting for The seat of presidency? I appreciate your correction, but we need a performing president, not an orator.

    • I must commend your path in journalism. Your observation and composition were brilliant and should be loudly appreciated. Errors like the president’s portray the depth of dearth in our society. He should have done well to at least save us the mockery.

  • So called phd holder, why is it that the aboki never see any thing good in any man who is not a muslim and not from the north ruling this country? When your fellow abokis were rulling, where were you to see and correct all these grammatical error? Pls go and sleep if you are not willing to pray and support him (mr president)

  • We should always be constructive in our criticism rather than being destructive critics, even Karl Popper who was considered as the father of criticism adopted a style he termed CRITICAL RATIONALISTIC METHOD i.e. using reason to criticize so we should always criticize rationally and constructively especially when it involve people of substance.

  • @the writer, u ought to av bn more courteous, present urself as a genuine corrector and not as an antagonist. Mentioning of name (more so of the president) should be totally avoided. However, Kudos to u on the correction as I personally learned a lot.

    @contributors: Using vulgar language and abusive words against writers is quite unethical. Even if he erred, he should be professional corrected and the grey areas be pointed out. Then the statement “grammar will not do us or change anything” is an insult on the already low-rated education in Nig. Up to 90% of our graduate can’t speak correct simple English yet, u hurl blames on somebody who’s trying put us on track. Or do many us think education is ability to own a BB, browse, Fb or tweet?? Better av a rethink and learn more from any write ups. Even locally, our so called graduates are not employable. Pls Think and all these abuse..

  • Mr grammar go and sit downd bcz ur nt even known in nigeria as a good english teacher, leave GEJ alone. If you think is very easy go and contest for chairman of your local govt.

  • Laziness reduces a man to an xtend that he sees nothing good in people. Prof. Go ahead n correct me also. I’m the chairman of my village meeting, or u correct only presidents?

  • @publishe, so, u think that u ar gramatically prefect?……..as long as English is a borrowed language in this country, even a P.hd holder in English is never perfect.. Personally, i do make mistake and this mistake semms to b the simplest in english.. So, no oe is pefect even u.

  • This is really uncharitable why the descrimination……….remember it is your president that you are castigating no matter what,or perhaps you are sent by the boko haram……….ooo! How i wish he can see this,he will trace you and get you be it spiritually or physically i tell you solemnly……….english was never,is never and can never be our mother’s lang.so we are okay with his english provided we can comprehend him….hmm but how dare you…anyway nice courage and enffrontery.be careful

  • OMG!am so surprised to see d comments of many naija fellas here…chai!na wa.Someone has pointed out a major problem with our system n u guys are here criticizing.English is our official lingua franca incase u guys dnt know o.The quality of his speech,reasonings and thinking is what is seen in his administration today.So u guys stop complaining,na ona go still de insult presido later

    • God bless u my man, that’s the level sentiments of various degree in Nigerians for u. Maybe these people here have been recruited towards 2015 who knows?

  • Thank you Doctor for this observation. Students of English would be grateful to you. They say Jonathan is holder of Ph.d. Na wa wooh.

  • Who then can speak better, is it Buhari Babangida or late, Yaradua? Maybe Obasanjo! Think of how 9ja will be a better place, nd stop criticising our president. Afterall we av been ruled by automobile mechanics, as presidents of 9ja, did dey speak better ? In one of Obasanjo’s interview, he said, wen ur working on a marshey ground, u av 2 remove d poto-poto first. Dis was on CNN, maybe u hadn’t written ur so called English book. Mind ur business ok?

  • Sentiments won’t allow some people to live a free life, our President committed blunders at the international level yet some of us here are clapping for him citing performance as number one reason he was elected, has he done justice to that? Let’s agree then that our President is found wanting in everything because it’s his wife we thought that’s fumbling grammatically before not knowing that Oga Jona himself isn’t better

  • Mr we don’t need grammar in Nigeria grammar is not our problem assuming they interview a french or Spanish president they will speak their local language we need solution to Nigeria problem grammar can’t supply us good electricity,job,housing,water etc forget grammar.

  • U’r sure doin a gr8 job on ur articles on grammer n articulation, n wot av u?… I’ll jus advice u kp doin d@ n d@ alone, n not use it as an avenue 2 mock d president, @ least his beta off in d@ respect dan sum of d American presidents d@ i know… Ppl dey 2 weh know dat grammer pass, aftarall British weh b say na deir language, dem still dey go study am 4 skul…

  • I do not think there is anything wrong in this Dr.’s Article. When you scroll up to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd paragraph, it was stated that he was not writing for jest making, rather as a liguist, he has the right to criticise any interview. By the way, how many of you criticising this Dr. Is an English student? Carry go oga Doc. I want more of this.

  • its not wrong to correct somebody most especially a public figure like the president whose mistakes cannot just go unnoticed, but the way we go about correction could be wrong. George Bush the former president of the US also had lots of grammatical errors while in office and they never go unnoticed and so it is with so many presidents and heads of states around the World. The president went to school and even had a PhD so the truth is he should know and do better. My point of view on this issue is this; its a public error and should thereby meet a public correction except there is a channel or means to bring it to his notice privately.

  • Teacher, English is not our language… In switzerland that have many language all city speak their language… so i advise president to speak his mother langauge not even English…. You are sick for insulting my President

  • Mr. Ph.D we say tank u, abeg evn if hm no sabi eng he is still a leader. Tanx fr ur effort in putin ds on air bt pls next tym jst try to show som rspect on oga Jona. u cn corect but nt quote hm verbatin in public.
    tank u, u can proced fr more PhD’s

    I tink he needs a job. Abeg mak we join hands hlp hm mak hm reach oga Jona. Abeg anybodi in Aso Rock online? Una no see hw Dangote de employ Ph.D as driver talk more of hm wey go be oga Jona teacher.
    Accept congrats in advance for ur nu post. rmember us wn u r der.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *