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Are you afflicted with steroidal semantics?

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By Chinua Asuzu

In a phenomenon that I call steroidal semantics, many nonnative English speakers perpetrate hypercorrection. They try to logically reconstruct English idioms, phrases, and words long blessed by usage. For example, they refer to a person’s male romantic or sexual partner as man friend instead of boyfriend, just because the partner is not a boy but a man. Well the correct word is boyfriend, no matter the age of the man, and it’s boyfriend not boy friend—it’s one word. Ditto for girlfriend. No matter the woman’s age, she’s your girlfriend if she’s your romantic partner.

In another instance of steroidal semantics, some people insert apostrophes at the beginnings of shortened names. You shouldn’t place apostrophes before shortened names except as an idiosyncratic stylistic quirk, like all-lowercase e.e. cummings. If your full first or middle name is Chukwuemeka or Nnaemeka, you’re Emeka, not ’Emeka or ’emeka. If your full first or middle name is Olaolu, you’re Laolu, not ’Laolu or ’laolu. It’s also steroidal semantics to lowercase subsequent elements of a hyphenated name. You should capitalize both or all elements of a hyphenated name: Judge Bola Okikiolu-Ighile, not Okikiolu-ighile.

Ignorance of the subjunctive mood in grammar also results in aberrations like “How comes?” instead of the perfectly sound How come?

Except in the rarest contexts, the expression My names are might qualify as symptomatic of multiple-personality or split-personality disorder. The introduction My names are is awful, harmful, hurtful, painful, and sinful English. As an introductory phrase in a business, formal, or social setting, My names are is mangled grammar on steroids. Your several names (first name, middle name[s], and surname) make up your one full name, your one identity. Your full name, no matter how many elements it has, is a singular noun phrase. The subject name and the linking verb is must both be in the singular. Saying My names are is akin to saying I are. If you say My names are, you’re building a list and you’ll need to insert commas between the several names—the elements of the list—and you’ll need a conjunction before the last element. My names are Albert, Chinualumogu, and Achebe for My names are Albert Chinualumogu Achebe.

Steroidal semantics forgets that usage sometimes trumps strict grammar. The phrases birth anniversary and birthday anniversary are the steroidal-linguistics equivalents for the more correct birthday. Do you have a dictionary? Open it—it won’t bite! Look up the word birthday. It has two main meanings: (a) the anniversary of one’s birth; and (b) the day of one’s birth. In most dictionaries, the anniversary sense is listed first. Stop saying “birth anniversary” or “birthday anniversary,” both of which border on steroidal semantics. The correct greeting is Happy Birthday!

Similarly, “typo error” and “typo-error” border on steroidal semantics, typo being the correct clipping meaning “typographical error.” The phrases typo error and typo-error are the steroidal-linguistics equivalents for the more correct typo. When you say, “typo error,” you’re really saying, rather nonsensically, “typographical error error,” since the clipping typo already means “typographical error.” Check your dictionary.

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The construction “I’m +1 today” is inapt, inarticulate, inauthentic, inelegant, and inept. Say instead, “Today is my birthday.” If you say, “Today is my birthday,” all your hearers or readers in the English-speaking world know you’re referring to your age, even if they can’t tell what that age is. If you say, “I’m +1 today,” most hearers in the English-speaking world have no clue what you’re referring to: age, girth, height, income, size, or weight. In most parts of the world, “I’m +1 today” would be incomprehensible or at least confusing. “Today is my birthday” poses no comprehension difficulties anywhere. Even if we treat “I’m +1 today” as dialectal and thus invulnerable to global tests, it’s certainly inelegant, violating as it does the flow of both algebra and grammar. I=+1 is both ungrammatical and unmathematical. It lacks algebraic equatability. It lacks linguistic, literary, and lyrical collocation. It’s unidiomatic and semi-illiterate. It couldn’t be overheard in the Senate of the University of Nigeria. Besides, “I’m +1 today” is so clichéd as to be bereft of any charm, euphony, or melody.

In linguistics, we deal more with the world of desirabilities than the world of possibilities. Just because it is said doesn’t make it sayable. Were we to descend to the world of possibilities and allow whatever is said to be sayable, there would be significantly less need to teach language. We’d just let the lunatics run the asylum. Not even the ultra-descriptivist school of linguistics would go that far. We might let sleeping dogs lie, but we’re not about to let lying dogs sleep. Mendacity won’t be tolerated in linguistics.

Unless a culture, custom, form, medium, or platform really constrains you otherwise, state your name in this order: first name–[middle name or initials]–surname/last name. We’re not unaware that some Asian cultures state the surname first. That formula is correct in those cultures only. In most parts of the world including Africa, North America, South America, most of Asia, and Europe, people place their first names first and their last names last. In the entire English-speaking world including Australia, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, they place their first names first and their last names last. And no matter where you go, say and write your name in this order. Just because some forms, especially at school or at work, require you to state your last name first doesn’t make it the typical or correct style. Place your first name first and your last name last.

Chinua Asuzu, Uncommon Law of Learned Writing 2.0 (Partridge, 2023), 269–272.

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