Global business prospects and effects of Nigerian English

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By Goke Ilesanmi

Effective communication is very critical to career or business success. As such, organisations and people who communicate effectively are more successful and peaceful. One thing that is very critical to effective communication is proficient application of language. Mastery of English Language has become more important in business relationships today, especially that it is the showroom of one’s level of intelligence as a verbal first point of contact. English, which is spoken by about one billion people and is most widely spoken around the world, is the language of diplomacy, finance, science, technology and business. So mastering language and communication allows you to effectively reach, sell and relate with a worldwide audience of customers for commerce. It also helps you enhance your career as an individual. In the business world, the bottomline is money, and communicating well allows you to save and earn it.


Quality of writing

     It is a reality that organisations and individuals are as good as the quality of their writing. Almost all individuals and organisations lay claim to good writing. But more often than not, poor grammar and jargon-infested writing are prevalent in their writing. To entrench a corporate culture of effective writing, organisations need to have regular language and communication training. This is because the practice of good, collaborative writing makes the difference between great business and bad business; sale and no sale.


Self-justification and global business loss

   In Nigeria for instance, we are masters at wrongly redeploying meanings of existing words and terms of English Language and even justifying the existence of Nigerian English whenever we are caught in the cobweb of grammatical errors or misapplication of English Language. Research shows that the problem of Nigerian English usage, with its attendant lack of global understanding and recognition, is depriving many organisations and individuals in Nigeria of the opportunity of enhancing their business or career prospects globally due to communication breakdown, now that the world has become a global village due to information and communications technology explosion.


Regional variants and recognition

  It is noteworthy that regional variants or varieties of English are allowed because British English cannot sufficiently accommodate and accurately represent all cultural experiences of different cultural environments in the world. It is what you experience that you express in language. But before your variant of English can be recognised globally and become acceptable, it must be standardised and codified – you must produce a dictionary for it so that people around the world can understand it through your dictionary.


Not yet a code

   But Nigeria English has not become a code because we still have Yoruba English, Hausa English, Igbo English, etc. That is, we have not come together to agree on standard Nigeria English. That is why if you travel outside Nigeria and some people say you Nigerians pronounce some words wrongly, you may quickly say it is not all tribes but a particular tribe. Imagine a situation where there is no British English dictionary, how do we learn English?  A variant like American English is acceptable and recognised because despite its deviation from standard British English, there is a dictionary for it. At this juncture, let us examine the characteristics of Nigerian English.


Local creativity

  One of the characteristics of the so-called Nigerian English is local creativity. This manifests in the form of words like “Bride-price”, “Chewing-stick”, etc. For instance, the cultural experience of our forefathers was chewing-stick not tooth-brush. Also it is a bride-groom that pays money to a bride here when it comes to marriage. That is why language experts here have created the descriptive title “Bride-price” in place of “Dowry” to accurately represent our peculiar cultural experience in English. Dowry basically refers to the money and other property that a bride gives to a bride-groom in some societies.


Negative language transfer

     Another feature of Nigerian English is negative language transfer. This refers to errors arising out of directly transferring (transliteration) expressions from our mother tongue into English. Examples of these errors are “I am coming” when you are actually going; “Do you understand what I have been saying since morning” even when you started in the afternoon; “They are calling you” when it is only one person that is calling the person; “Yes, I wasn’t” when we agree with a negative statement, etc. The correct expression for “I am coming” is “I will be (right) back” when it is the case you are actually going. “I am coming” is direct translation of the Yoruba expression “Mo n bo”.

      If you start a presentation in the afternoon and want to confirm if the audience members understand what you been saying, it is better to say “Do you understand what I have saying since” without adding the word “morning” which is very common in Yoruba English. It is also common to hear an expression such as “They are calling you” among Yoruba speakers. This is because in Yoruba Language, the third-person plural pronoun “They” is used for elders as a mark of honour. This is called “Honorific pronoun”. When you do direct translation (transliteration) of Yoruba into English, you end up using third-person plural pronoun “They” for an elder instead of “He” or “She”.


Additional information

     It is also common for a Nigerian speaker of English to respond “Yes, I wasn’t” when he or she agrees to a negative statement or “No, I was” when he or she disagrees to a negative statement. The two standard ways of answering in English are “Yes, I was” and “No, I wasn’t”. Our major problem is with choosing between “Yes” and “No”. This arises from some of our local languages. For instance, if you tell a Nigerian speaker of English, “You weren’t around yesterday” and he or she was not, he or she will say “Yes” instead of “No”. By the time he or she adds the extension, it becomes self-contradictory.


Business implication

If you ignorantly use all these culture-induced expressions in your interaction with a British business partner or boss, he or she will say you lie so much without knowing the language problems are caused by direct translation from your mother tongue.


Knowledge of dictionary symbols

       Lack of knowledge of dictionary symbols or abbreviations is another feature of Nigerian English causing errors among speakers. In a bid to discuss much in the limited space of a dictionary, lexicographers (dictionary writers) normally use abbreviations and symbols in their illustrations. But many dictionary users in Nigeria find it difficult using dictionaries effectively, especially the grammatical aspect, because of ignorance of most of the abbreviations and word-class labels used.

    Examples of these abbreviations are “n” for noun; “v” for Verb; “adv” for Adverb; “adj” for Adjective; “pron” for Pronoun, etc. Lack of knowledge of these abbreviations makes many people in Nigeria pluralise uncountable nouns like Potential”, “Fallout”, “Legislation”, “Equipment”, etc., despite the fact that the symbol [U] which means “Uncountable” is placed against them in the dictionary. Also the abbreviation “adj” is placed against words like “Mediocre” and “Destitute” to show they are adjectives. But lack of knowledge of what the abbreviation “adj” means makes most Nigerians use these words as nouns by saying “You are mediocres” and “Government should relocate the destitute”. The correct usage is “You are mediocre people”; “Government should relocate the destitute people”.



      Also lack of knowledge of dictionary symbols has led to ignorant usage of American English words in place of British English words. For instance, the short form “BrE” means British English while “AmE” means “American English”. “AmE” is written against the word “Gotten” with the “pp” symbol to show that it is the American English past participle of the verb “Get”. “BrE” is written against the word “Got” with a “pp” symbol to show that it is the British English past participle of Get”. But many Nigerians ignorantly say “I have gotten” instead of the British English version “I have got”.

      Despite the short form “AmE” placed against American English words, many also use American English words like “Side Mirror” in place of the British English version “Wing mirror”; “Transportation” in place of the British English version “Transport”. We erroneously say “Ministry of Transportation” in Nigeria instead of “Ministry of Transport” even when we claim to speak British English.


Addition and business implication

     Also the word “Presently” has two meanings. The first meaning is “Very soon”. This has the symbol “BrE” (British English) against it. The second meaning is “Now” which has the symbol “AmE” (American English) against it. This means it is wrong to use “Presently” to mean “Now” in British English. Rather, we use “At present” or “Currently” in British English. If you tell your British customer or prospect that you “presently” have some needed products in stock, you have lost business because you are ignorantly telling him or her that you will have the products very soon.


Wrong redeployment of meanings

     This is another feature of Nigerian English. It is about misinterpreting the original meanings of the existing words of English Language. Examples of words that have their meanings wrongly redeployed in Nigeria are “Do-or-die”, “Tout”, “Dowry”, “Minerals”, etc. “Do-or-die” is a positive idiom that means “Strong determination” (check a dictionary). “Tout” means “Marketer” or “Canvasser” not “Hooligan”. “Dowry” basically refers to the money and other property that a bride gives to the bride-groom not money that a bridegroom pays on the bride as wrongly used in Nigeria.

     We wrongly use “Minerals” for “Soft drinks”; “Hot drinks” for “Hard drinks”; “Machine” for “Motorcycle”. We have also wrongly created the word “Send-forth” in place of the correct version “Send-off”; “Drainages” in place of the correct one “Drains”.  Most Nigerian speakers of English wrongly say “Send-forth” instead of “Send-off”, probably because the adverbial particle/preposition “off” is considered negative. I wonder why we have not changed jamb “cut-off” mark to “cut-forth” mark!

Similarly we use “Do-or-die” negatively probably because of the negative word “Die”.



    “Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English” defines “Send-off” as “a party or other occasion when people meet to say ‘goodbye’ to someone who is leaving”. The dictionary thus gives this example, “The department gave Tom a send-off he won’t forget!” In this sense and context, “Send-off” is used as a noun and has a positive meaning. It is different from the negative usage as a verb in the expression, “The referee is likely to send off the player for dangerous tackles”.

     It is bad English to say “Don’t throw refuse inside drainages”. The plural word “Drains” is the correct version. “Drainage” refers to “the process by which water or liquid waste is drained from an area”. “Drainage” is also an uncountable noun and cannot be used in the plural form. “Drain” refers to a pipe or any channel that carries away dirty water or liquid waste. See this example from “Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary”, International Student’s Edition: “We had to call in the plumber to unblock the drain.”


Justification of wrong connotation

    Proponents of Nigerian English are always quick to justify errors of wrong redeployment of meanings by claiming they are connotative meanings. Connotative meanings refer to meanings that are not dictionary meanings or denotative meanings. Usage of words like “Do-or-Die”, “Tout”, “Dowry”, etc., differently from the dictionary meanings does not count for standard connotative meanings but errors of wrong redeployment of meanings arising out of ignorance. We cannot hide under wrong connotative meanings to continue to justify errors in Nigeria.

   Some justify these errors by saying it is communication that matters. This does not mean we should now sacrifice linguistic correctness on the altar of communication. It is like saying as a man, if your small child calls you “Mummy”, you should not correct him or her but just continue to answer so long you know it is you the father that he or she is referring to. 



Many Nigerians even argue that “Do-or-die”, a positive idiom that correctly means “Strong determination”, has assumed a negative connotation in Nigeria since former President Olusegun Obasanjo used it during electioneering. I want to say it was (and is) because many Nigerians did not understand the actual meaning before Obasanjo used it. After all, a northern governor (name withheld) mistook the noun phrase “Mineral resources” for “Soft drinks” in the 1980s in Nigeria. Why has the phrase “Mineral resources” not had the connotative meaning of “Soft drinks” in Nigeria since then? It is simply because we understood (and understand) it was (and is) an error.


Standard connotative meanings

   Standard connotative meanings are based on pure peculiar cultural experiences that are not covered in the dictionary, not errors of wrong redeployment of meanings like “Do-or-die”, “Tout”, “Dowry”, “Minerals”, etc., common in Nigeria. For instance, a word like “Woman” culturally has different connotative meanings peculiar to different cultures in Nigeria, which are not covered in the dictionary. In a war context, for instance, if the word “Woman” is used for a man, it has the connotative meaning of cowardice. If the word “Woman” is used for a man in a cooking context, it has connotative meaning of commendation in our cultures in Nigeria. If drinking of alcohol is involved and you refer to a man as a woman, then connotatively, you are saying he lacks capacity for alcohol intake or is easily intoxicated. These are standard and acceptable connotative meanings. We should stop committing blunders and claiming wrong connotative meanings.


Overgeneralisation of rules of English   

     Overgeneralisation of rules of English is another feature of Nigerian English. This is making us to commit errors daily. For instance, because the verb “Realise” has the noun “Realisation”, we often overgeneralise the rule by wrongly thinking the noun from the verb “Vandalise” is “Vandalisation” instead of the correct noun “Vandalism”. Also because we have the idiomatic expression “The best/worst is yet to come”, we overgeneralise this idiom when we are using “Yet” with “To”-infinitive verbs in other situations. We wrongly say “I am yet to go there” instead of “I have yet to go there”.

   We also say “She is yet to go there” instead of “She has yet to go there”. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English illustrates thus, “I have yet to hear Ray’s version of what happened” and “The bank has yet to respond to our letter”. Note that when a main verb like “Hear” or “Respond” is not involved, it is not used this way. So it is correct to say “He is not yet around”, because “Around” is not a verb.



     In Nigerian English, we equally say “I know fully well” instead of “I know full well”. “Full” is correctly used here as an obscure adverb, that is, an adverb that has the structure of an adjective. It is notional or grammatical over-generalisation to conclude that all words ending in “-ly” are adverbs; or that adverbs always take “-ly”. For example, as we have natural obscure adjectives like “Fatherly”, “Heavenly”, “Cowardly”, etc., that is, adjectives having the shape of adverbs, we also have natural adverbs called obscure adverbs (without “-ly”), e.g., “Low”, “High”, “Hard”, “Late”, “Wide”, etc., that have the shape of adjectives. It is their usage in an expression that usually marks the difference between adjectives and adverbs, e.g. “He came late” (adverb); “He usually arrives in late hours” (adjective); “He opened the door wide” (adverb); “There road is wide” (adjective); “He always work hard” (adverb); “The book has a hard cover” (adjective).


Further analysis    

   Most Nigerians also interpret the expression “No love lost” to mean that the love between two people is intact. This idiom actually means that two people involved hate each other, that the love does not exist in the first place not to talk of it getting lost. One of the ex-Super Eagles players was asked about his relationship with another ex-Super Eagles player on a radio sports programme two years ago, he replied that that their relationship was intact and also used the idiom “No love lost” to emphasise it. What a self-contradiction! In the same vein, the expression “Play the Devil’s advocate” is misinterpreted in Nigerian English. The dictionary meaning is: “to pretend to disagree with somebody in order to have good discussion about something”. But in Nigerian English, it is wrongly used to mean that somebody is defending an offender, like an advocate or lawyer. 


Conditional clauses

   Also, another area where the problem of over-generalisation of rules manifests in Nigerian English is in the area of conditional clauses. Most Nigerian speakers use the second type of conditional clauses called “Theoretical Possibility” in almost all situations because they think conditionals clauses are always in the past, e.g., “If we supplied the goods tomorrow, they would pay us”. Conditional clauses are basically divided to three types. The first type is called “Open Possibility”. This refers to possible actions, e.g., “If we have money tomorrow, we shall go there”.

  The second type is called “Theoretical Possibility”. This is used for actions that are no longer possible, except in theory, e.g. “If I were you, I would buy the car”. This is in the past because it is no longer possible for the person to be another person. The third type is called “Denied Possibility”, e.g. “If I had been given a chance, I would have beaten the man”. There is a minor one which is a combination of one part of Type Two and one part of Type Three, e.g. “If the crisis had stopped, there would be peace everywhere now.”

      BUSINESS IMPLICATION: Just imagine an organisation telling its numerous foreign customers “If we had goods tomorrow, we would call you”! This practically means it is impossible to call customers because it is impossible to have goods. The Open Possibility type should have been used, “If we have goods tomorrow, we shall call you”. 


Inconsistency/overgeneralisation of rules of English

  … Apart from blaming Nigerians for errors of overgeneralisation of rules of English, Standard British English itself is also blamed for lack of consistency of rules here. For instance, “Formal” is the opposite of “Informal” but “Valuable” and “Invaluable” are not opposite words. “Flammable” and “Inflammable” are also not opposite words. While “Proprietress” is the opposite of “Proprietor”, “Governor” is not the opposite of “Governess”. While “Useless” is the opposite of “Useful”, “Priceless” is not a negative word with the meaning “Without a price”, but “Too valuable to be priced”. Also the Standard British English word “Offhand” means to say something from the memory. This series of inconsistency of rules makes most Nigerians wrongly use “Offhead” for “Offhand” because they believe hands are not involved. They also think “Invaluable” is the opposite of “Valuable”; or “Inflammable” is opposite of “Flammable”, etc.


Special areas

  While conceptually-plural noun phrases like “The Underdog”, “the youth”, “the faithful”, “the poor”, “the offspring”, “the folk”, “Three dozen”, “Two aircraft”, etc., are acceptably used without “S”, we surprisingly have structurally-plural but conceptually-singular nouns like “A species”, “A crossroads”, “a bellows”, “a means”, “a summons”, etc., starting with the indefinite article “A” and still ending in “S”. This inconsistency on the part of Standard British English misleads most speakers of Nigerian English into committing errors of overgeneralisation of rules by removing the final “S” to convey singular.


More information

  Also, the expression “How do you do?” is correctly replied with “How do you do?” But most speakers of Nigerian English wrongly reply “Fine”. The expressions “What’s more” and “I hope you are okay” do not take a question mark. But speakers of Nigerian English overgeneralise by even adding a question mark in writing. Though, Standard British English is also blamed for lack of consistency here. Also present-tense expressions used in the past-tense form tagged unreal-past such as “I would rather you went there tomorrow”, “It is high time we went home now”, “I wish I met my mother at home tomorrow”, etc., pose the problem of usage in Nigeria. This problem is also blamed on Standard British English for tense inconsistency of using past tense to convey present.


Other examples of Nigerian English errors

  Most speakers of Nigerian English wrongly say “Thank you for your patronage” (American English) instead of “Thank you for your custom” (British English).  They also wrongly say “It is tasking” instead of “It is taxing”; “It is a lost battle” instead of “It is a losing battle”; “Warm your way into somebody’s heart” instead of the correct Standard British English version “Worm your way into somebody’s heart”.  They also wrongly say “He is a Godsent” instead of “It is a godsend”; “As at when due” instead of “As and when due”; “I will lay ambush for him” instead of “I will lie in ambush for him”.


Additional examples

   Most speakers of Nigerian English wrongly say “The president has commissioned the new road” instead of “The president has inaugurated the new road”; “He always speaks big grammar” instead of “He always uses high-sounding vocabulary”; “I am a staff of this organisation” instead of “I am a member of staff of this organisation”. In Nigerian English, it is common to hear the wrong expression “You that is not serious” while referring to one person, instead of “You that are not serious”. Speakers of Nigerian English wrongly say “I that is not afraid” instead of “I that am not afraid”; “Night vigil” instead of “Vigil”; “Wake-keeping” or “Wake-keep” instead of the correct version “Wake”. It is also common to hear “Doctorate degree” instead of the correct version “Doctorate” or “Doctoral degree”; “Electioneering campaign” instead of “Electioneering”. Speakers of Nigerian English wrongly say “We boast of good staff” instead of the correct version “We boast good staff”; “The new manager will resume tomorrow” instead of “The new manager will assume duties tomorrow”.


Last set of examples

  They also wrongly say “I have scaled through” instead of “I have sailed through”; “He is matured” instead of “He is mature”;  “It seems as if” instead of “It seems that”; “That your friend” instead of “That friend of yours”; “It is pepperish” instead of “It is peppery”; “Grinded pepper” instead of “Ground pepper”; “Binded copy” instead of “Bound copy”. Most speakers of Nigerian English also wrongly say “White elephant projects” instead of “White elephants”; “In the company premises” instead of “On the company premises”; “In the bus” instead of “On the bus”. They wrongly say “Next week Tuesday” instead of “Tuesday Next week”; “Next year October” instead of “October Next year”.


General business implication

  Just imagine the kind of response your organisation will get from investors or (prospective) business partners outside the country if you send a business proposal or correspondence containing these misused Nigerian English words! This linguistic incompetence becomes worrisome especially that English is necessary for competing in the global marketplace and is the most widely spoken language in the world today! Or better still, imagine how foreigners who visit your corporate website will feel about your corporate level of formal education after reading these misused words, especially that English Language has become an instrument of gauging one’s height on the socio-intellectual ladder! I will advise individuals and corporate organisations to avoid use of the so-called Nigerian English which can impede career or business prospects because it easily leads to communication breakdown.      

   PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details.

GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Certified Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.

Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425

Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com

Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng


2 thoughts on “Global business prospects and effects of Nigerian English”

  1. Thanks very much. Your piece has been enlightening and educative more so as I’m hoping to pursue an MSc Degree in the UK.
    I will certainly take heed to the corrections which I must confess have been humbling especially as I have always considered myself a guru in English.
    well, now I can go on to become the guru I have always known I am.
    (And please, do not mind any grammatical blunder(s)… I’m just a guru in the making. haven’t got there yet…)

  2. Olusola Gbenga

    I read this piece almost everytime.It’s informative enough to make one feel classic with English.Please,i hope you can review this”He is calling you”,even when someone has stop calling,does it add up to use”calling”.Thanks

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