This study investigates the syntactic features of Nigerian English which have been created
through the following processes – the use of subjectless sentences, reduplication, double subjects,
Pidgin-influenced structures, discourse particles, verbless sentences, and substitution. It observes
that the fact that some features of Nigerian English syntax are shared by other new Englishes is a
healthy development for the identity of non-native varieties around the world. It finally recommends
the codification of the new norms into variety-specific grammars and a common grammar
of new Englishes.
The documentation of the various features of world Englishes has continued to
attract the attention of the linguistic scholar. Like other varieties of non-native
Englishes, West African English (WAE) has received considerable attention
(see, for example, Spencer 1971; Sey 1973; Bamgbose – Banjo – Thomas 1995;
Wolf 2001; Igboanusi 2002a). However, not much has been published on the
syntax of WAE in general and that of Nigerian English (NE) in particular. The
general belief is that grammatical features of national varieties of WAE are not
exclusive, and can also be found in other varieties of New Englishes (cf. Peter –
Wolf – Simo Bobda 2003: 44). For example, some scholars (notably Todd
1982; Bamgbose 1992; Bamiro 1995) observe that most of the syntactic patterns
in educated WAE are similar to those of other new Englishes. However, Todd
identifies the following syntactic variations of WAE: the indiscriminate use of
the tag questions isn’t it/not so? as in it doesn’t matter, not so/isn’t it?; differences
in the use of some phrasal verbs, e.g. cope up with for ‘cope with’; failure
to sometimes distinguish between countable and non-countable nouns (e.g. an
394 H. Igboanusi
advice, firewoods, behaviors). Bamiro’s (1995) study on the syntactic variation
of WAE was a more comprehensive investigation than earlier studies on the
subject matter. Using data from creative literature, Bamiro identifies the following
variations: subjectless sentences, e.g. Is because she’s a street walker for ‘It
is because…?’; deletion of -ly morpheme in manner adjuncts, e.g. Send patrol
van to pick her up quick (quickly); omission of function words, e.g. You say
truth (‘… the truth’); reduplication, e.g. Slowly, slowly the canoe moved like the
walk of an old man (gradually); formation of interrogatives without changing
the position of subject and auxiliary items, e.g. You’ve decided finally then?
(‘Have you finally decided then?’); tag questions, e.g. You are writing a paper
about our organization, not so? (‘Isn’t it?’); the use of the progressive aspect
with mental processes, e.g. Do you know what I am hearing? (‘Do you know
what I hear these days?’); non-distinctive use of reciprocal pronouns, e.g. The
captains (seven of them) looked at each other somewhat perplexed (‘one another’);
substitution of preposition in idiomatic usage, e.g. That is why they have
dragged the good name of my father, Joshua, son of Fagbola in the mud
(‘through’); focus constructions, e.g. You are a funny man, you this man.
With regard to NE, Banjo (1995: 217) observes that “empirical contrastive
study of the syntax of Nigerian and British English goes back to the era of error
analysis and contrastive linguistics” (e.g. the works of Tomori 1967; Banjo
1969; Odumuh 1981; Kujore 1985). Further works on the syntax of NE are
found in Odumuh (1987); Jowitt (1991); Bamgbose (1992); Kujore (1995) and
Banjo (1995). For example, Odumuh (1987: 60-65) identifies some “typical
variations between British English and Nigerian English as spoken by tertiary
educated informants”. Some of his examples include:
1) They enjoyed for BE ‘They enjoyed themselves’ (enjoyed occurs intransitively
in NE structure while it is usually transitive in BE);
2) He pregnanted her for BE ‘He made her pregnant’ (while NE structure uses
pregnanted as a verb, the word pregnant occurs in BE as an adjective);
3) You like that, isn’t it? for BE ‘You like that, don’t you?’ (in BE, while the
negative question tag is always determined by the verb, it is often represented
in NE by isn’t it?);
4) Give me meat for BE ‘Give me some meat’ (omission of article in NE
structure but not in BE structure);
5) I am having your book for BE ‘I have your book’ (NE structure uses the
ing as a stative marker);
6) He has been there since for BE ‘He has been there for some time’ (NE
structure uses an adverbial adjunct while BE structure has a preposition
followed by an adjunct).
Syntactic innovation processes … 395
Jowitt (1991) provides the following examples:
7) He offed the light for BE ‘He put off the light’ (1991: 112 – functional
8) After the referee might have arrived the match will begin for BE ‘After the
referee has arrived the match will begin’ (1991: 120 – illustrates the use of
modals in NE);
9) My father he works under NEPA for ‘My father works in NEPA’ (1991:
121 – subject copying).
A further example is:
10) I have filled the application form for BE ‘I have filled in the application
form’ (Kujore 1995: 371 – illustrates the use of the verb fill in NE where
the preposition in is deleted);
It has to be pointed out here that some of the syntactic features illustrated as characterizing
WAE or NE by existing studies are in fact shared by other varieties of English.
For instance, Kachru (1982, 1983, etc.) has noted the following syntactic features
in South Asian English – reduplication, formation of interrogatives without
changing the position of subject and auxiliary items, tag questions, differences associated
with the use of articles, etc. Similarly, Skandera (2002: 98-99) identifies
some of the grammatical features of all ESL varieties which do not occur in Standard
English to include missing verb inflections, missing noun inflections, pluralisation
of uncountable nouns, use of adjectives as adverbs, avoidance of complex
tenses, different use of articles, flexible position of adverbs, lack of inversion in
indirect questions, lack of inversion and do-support in wh-questions, and invariant
question tags. The fact that many of the features of NE or WAE syntax identified in
earlier studies are also shared by other new Englishes is an indication that new Englishes
around the world now have identifiable linguistic characteristics. What needs
to be done is to intensify research on comparisons of these features across national
and regional varieties of non-native Englishes with a view to separating exclusive
features of these varieties from general or universal markers.
2. Syntactic innovation processes
The present study is an attempt to account for innovations in the syntax of NE
resulting from the sociolinguistic context of Nigeria, namely Nigerian Pidgin
English and the indigenous languages. How is “innovation” to be perceived? To
this question, Bamgbose (1998: 2) states that an innovation is to be seen as “an
acceptable variant”. The problem here is to determine whether a usage or struc396
ture is an innovation or an error. What is seen as an innovation in a non-native
variety of English may be perceived as an error by most native speakers of English.
This problem is resolved the very moment we recognize the roles of social
convention as well as the relationship between social structure and linguistic form
in the use of new Englishes (cf. Banda 1996: 68). As Skandera (2002: 99) has
rightly observed, “if the characteristic features of an ESL variety come to be used
with a certain degree of consistency by educated speakers, and are no longer perceived
as ‘mistakes’ by the speech community, then that ESL variety becomes
endonormative (or endocentric), i.e. it sets its own norms”. Most of the examples
provided in the present investigation are so frequently heard in the speech of
many educated users of NE that they have ceased to be regarded as errors.
3. The data
The data for this study is based on my observations through recordings and field
investigations over the past five years. The recordings involve mainly the formal
and informal conversations of educated speakers of NE at different social
events, conferences and seminars, and students’ conversation as well as the
conversations of less educated NE speakers. The informal recordings reflect
different settings, sexes, ages, and ethnic and educational backgrounds. Some of
the data used in this work are also drawn from radio and television discussions.
I have adopted some of the categories of syntactic variation in WAE identified
by Bamiro, which are commonly found in NE. They include: reduplication,
subjectless sentences, substitution of preposition in idiomatic usage, and use of
double subjects. I have supplemented these categories with such new ones as
the use of verbless sentences, Pidgin-influenced structures, and structures influenced
by the use of discourse particles. Although many of the processes of syntactic
innovation discussed in this paper may occur in other varieties of WAE or
new Englishes, the sources of their influence and patterns of their use may be
different. It is also important to note that some of these syntactic categories are
very important features of creation in the style of many Nigerian and West African
writers (as Bamiro has shown) and are regularly founded in Nigerian newspapers
and magazines. In other words, they are not only restricted to colloquial
contexts. Their uses also cut across different levels of education.
I have carefully presented features which are found in both the basilectal and
acrolectal varieties of NE. I have identified the variety of NE in which a particular
feature is dominant. British English (BE) equivalents to the examples are
provided in parenthesis after each example.
English in Nigeria presents interesting problems because even the acrolectal
variety is caught between the Standard BE norms and basilectal pidgin. This
complex situation inevitably tolerates influences from Nigerian languages (as
Syntactic innovation processes … 397
with the case of discourse particles and reduplication) and Nigerian Pidgin (as
with the case of Pidgin-influenced structures).
3.1. Subjectless sentences
There is a preponderant use of subjectless sentences in the speech of NE users.
This practice involves the omission of the subject it in NE structures. Where
this omission occurs in the speech of educated users of NE, it is largely influenced
by the process of shortening in which the form It’s is reduced to Is, especially
in spoken English. Where it occurs in the speech of less educated users of
NE, it may be as a result of the influence of Nigerian Pidgin (NP) in which na is
transferred as is into NE structures. Consider the following examples:
a) Is very far (‘It’s very far’).
b) Is about three hours or more (‘It’s about three hours or more’).
c) Is about ten dollars (‘It’s about ten dollars’).
d) Is the woman (‘It’s the woman’).
Although subjectless sentences may not be found in the written form of the
acrolectal variety, it does exist in the written form of the basilectal variety.
Although reduplication has been treated by Bobda (1994) and Igboanusi (1998)
as lexical process of innovation, Kachru (1982) has noted that the reduplication
of items belongs to various word classes. For instance, some English words are
often reduplicated or repeated consecutively, either for emphasis, pluralisation,
or to create new meanings. Bobda (1994: 258) has rightly identified three categories
of words, which generally undergo the process of reduplication: numerals,
intensifiers and quantifiers. And as Igboanusi (2002b) has observed, while
the occurrence of a second numeral denotes ‘each’ (as in one-one, half-half), the
reduplication of an intensifier or a quantifier may be for emphasis (as in manymany,
now-now, before-before, fast-fast, fine-fine, slowly-slowly) or for pluralisation
(as in big-big, small-small). Examples are:
a) Please drive slowly-slowly because the road is bad (‘Please drive very
slowly because the road is bad’).
b) Before-before, food was very cheap in this country (‘In the past, food was
very cheap in this country’).
c) Please get me two more bottles of beer fast-fast (‘Please get two bottles of
beer for me very quickly’).
398 H. Igboanusi
d) I visited my friend’s campus and I saw many fine-fine girls (‘I visited my
friend’s campus and I saw several fine girls’).
e) Give me half-half bag of rice and beans (‘Give me half bag each of rice
f) We were asked to pay one-one hundred Naira as fine for contravening the
environmental sanitation law (‘We were asked to pay one hundred Naira
each as fine for contravening the environmental sanitation law’).
g) Do you have small-small beans? (‘Do you have small brand of beans?’).
h) You put it small small (‘It is put little by little’).
i) I have small small children in the house (‘I have young children in the
j) He claims not to have money and yet he’s busy building big-big houses all
over the city (‘He claims not to have money and yet he’s busy building
several big houses all over the city’).
k) Many many speak English (‘The majority of the people speak English’).
l) He visits me at three three weeks interval (‘He visits me at three week
m) Me I was running running (‘I was busy running’).
n) They went inside inside (‘They went to the interior part’).
o) Those are simple simple jobs to do (‘Those are very simple jobs to do’).
p) They live one one or two two (‘They live one or two to a room’).
Reduplication is mostly used in NE in colloquial contexts. And in the contexts
exemplified above, the reduplicatives small-small, fine-fine, one-one, fast-fast,
simple-simple, three-three and big-big are often heard in the speeches of educated
NE users. In general, reduplicatives are more commonly used by the less
educated speakers of NE than by educated speakers. The occurrence of reduplicatives
in NE stems from the influence of Nigerian languages and Pidgin.
3.3. Double subjects
The use of double subjects is another syntactic feature of NE. This process,
which is adopted to emphasize the subject, may involve the use of double pronouns
(e.g. this your/my, Me I) or the pronoun + a modifier/qualifier (e.g. we
children, we the poor).
a) Me I don’t have money (‘I don’t have money’).
b) Me I don’t know anything about the journey (‘I don’t know anything about
c) This your friend is not reliable (‘Your friend is not reliable’ OR ‘This
friend of yours is not reliable’).
Syntactic innovation processes … 399
d) This your regime is the worst we have witnessed in recent time (‘Your
regime is the worst we have witnessed in recent time’ OR ‘This regime of
yours is the worst we have witnessed in recent time’).
e) We children were sent to go and play (‘We were sent to go and play’ OR
‘Those of us who were young were sent out to go and play’).
f) We the poor are always cheated in this country (‘We are always cheated in
this country’ OR ‘Those of us who are poor are always cheated in this
The use of double subjects in constructions reflects the colloquial contexts of
some of Nigeria’s indigenous languages (e.g. Igbo and Yoruba) and Nigerian
Pidgin. Its colloquialism lies with the use of redundancy to achieve emphasis.
Note the use of double pronouns as subjects in examples (a) to (d) and the use
of pronoun + a modifier/qualifier in examples (e) and (f). The structures exemplified
in (3.3.) are found in the speech of both educated and less educated users.
Although the use of double subjects resembles the use of topicalisation,
which is commonly used in British English (e.g. John Coker, he’s to blame), the
two processes are different since the pronoun in topicalisation is in apposition to
3.4. Pidgin-influenced structures
The strong influence of Pidgin English brings forth several NE structures. Let’s
examine the following samples:
a) We work farm (‘We are farmers’ or ‘We work on a farm’).
b) I have maize, yam, finish (‘I have maize and yam; that is it’).
c) I continue working at farm, finish (‘I continue to work at the farm; that is it’).
d) We sat down, finish (‘We sat down; that was it’).
e) We stayed together, ate, finish (‘We stayed together and ate; that was it’).
f) The Muslims are plenty than the Christians (‘The Muslims are more than
g) I don’t know book (‘I’m not brilliant’).
h) If rice is done you keep it (‘Bring down the rice from fire when it is well
Note the deletion of preposition and determiner in (a), the emphatic use of finish
as a discourse marker in (b), (c), (d) and (e), the use of plenty as a comparative
item in (f), translation equivalent in (g), and (h).
400 H. Igboanusi
3.5. Structures with discourse particles
Several English structures exist in NE with discourse particles, which derive
either from the influence of NP or the indigenous language. Discourse particles
are frequently used in conversation. Consider the following examples:
a) You know Kemi now! (‘You should know Kemi’).
b) I live in Port Harcourt now! (‘You should know that I live in Port Harcourt’).
c) Wait now! (‘Please wait’).
d) Tomorrow is your birthday, abi? (‘Tomorrow is your birthday. Isn’t it?’).
e) Shebi it was you I gave some money yesterday (‘I think it was you I gave
some money yesterday’)
f) I won’t be there o (‘I will not be there’).
g) I’m tired of this life self (‘I’m even tired of this life’).
h) You’ll be here tomorrow, ko? (‘You’ll be here tomorrow, won’t you?’).
i) You disobeyed me and still went ahead to fight those people, ba? (‘You
disobeyed me and still went ahead to fight those people, didn’t you?’).
j) So, it is now confirmed that you were the one who initiated that move
against me; kai, I’m disappointed (‘So, it is now confirmed that you were
the one who initiated that move against me; I’m really disappointed’).
k) Haba! You should have told me before taking my money (‘What! You
should have told me before taking my money’).
l) Sha me, I have said what I wanted to say (‘As for me, I have said all I have
m) I don’t know him sha (‘Anyway, I don’t know him’).
n) I have heard you, to! (‘OK, I have heard you’).
o) You’re the one that stole my money, to! (‘You’re the one that stole my
p) I will deal with that man, wallahi (‘By God, I will deal with that man’).
q) Yauwa! I have seen what I’m looking for (‘I’m satisfied that I have seen
what I’m looking for’).
While 3.5 (a), (b), (c), (f) and (g) have pidgin as their source language, (d), (e),
(l) and (m) have Yoruba as their source language. The examples in (h), (i), (j),
(k), (n), (o), (p) and (q) are derived from Hausa and/or Fula. All the examples
are regularly found in NE-based conversations. In (a), (b) and (c), the discourse
particle now is used to emphasize the point that what is referred to is not unfamiliar
to the listener. In (d), the interjection abi is used as a discourse strategy to
confirm a piece of information. It may be equivalent to ‘Isn’t it?’ Like now, the
particle o in (f) is usually found in sentence-final position and gives emphasis to
Syntactic innovation processes … 401
the entire sentence. In addition, o signals the emotional involvement of the
speaker. Both ko in (h) and ba in (i) are interrogative markers. Kai and haba
express surprise. Shebi is a rhetorical question marker while yauwa expresses
feeling of satisfaction. Both sha and to are used to affirm a statement whereas
wallahi is equivalent to ‘honestly’ or ‘By God’. All the discourse particles discussed
above are only used colloquially. Discourse particles are veritable
sources of syntactic innovation processes in NE. The structures in (3.5.) can
occur in the conversations of both educated and less educated speakers of NE.
Although discourse particles are not originally English items, they are innovative
in creating NE structures.
3.6. Verbless sentences
Some verbless sentences exist in the discourse of NE speakers. In conversations
or exchange of pleasantries, one notices the frequent occurrence of the following
a) How? (‘How are you?’)
b) How now? (‘How are you?’)
c) How things? (‘How are things?’)
d) How work? (‘How is work?’)
e) How family? (‘How is your family?’)
f) How life? (‘How is life with you?’)
g) How body? (‘How is your body?’)
h) How market (‘How is business?’)
It may be argued that the deep structure of the verbless sentences in 3.6. may
not be really verbless but the result of a phonological rule in which single consonants
(in this case, [z]) are deleted between word boundaries. But at the surface
structure, they remain verbless. Although such verbless sentences are more
frequently found in the conversation of the less educated speakers of NE, they
also occur in the conversations of educated users of NE as a means of expressing
Some instances of substitution, which involve the use of English idioms, have
been identified as processes of syntactic creation in NE. In all the examples
listed below, NE structures are used to replace BE idioms:
a) They are two sides of the coin (‘They are two sides of one coin’).
402 H. Igboanusi
b) He did the work on his own accord (‘He did the work of his own accord’).
c) I am not surprised that Chike and Andrew are such close friends; they are
birds of the same feather (‘I am not surprised that Chike and Andrew are
such close friends; they are birds of a feather’).
d) Dipo, I can’t believe that you’re now biting the finger that fed you (‘Dipo, I
can’t believe that you’re now biting the hand that fed you’).
e) The football match is going to be a child’s play (‘The football match is
going to be child’s play’).
f) I have been busy since morning cracking my brain over that question (‘I
have been busy since morning racking my brain over that question’).
g) You should not take the law into your hands (‘You should not take the law
into your own hands’).
h) By no stretch of imagination could anyone trust him (‘By no stretch of the
imagination could anyone trust him’).
i) And last but not the least is the perennial water problem in this state (‘And
last but not least is the perennial water problem in this state’).
j) He often shouts on top of his voice (‘He often shouts at the top of his
As a syntactic process, the substitution of idiomatic usage involves three strategies
– omission, replacement and insertion. While examples (a), (g) and (h)
involve omission of some functional words, examples (e) and (i) concern the
insertion of articles. In the same vein, examples (b), (c), (d), (f) and (j) adopt the
process of replacement of some words.
What the data on syntactic innovation processes in NE shows is the evidence of
some aspects of the nativisation of English as a result of the contact of English
and indigenous languages and Pidgin. There is also evidence of some influence
of the pragmatic use of English in the Nigerian environment. It is true that some
features of NE syntax discussed in this paper are shared by other varieties of
WAE in particular and other varieties of English elsewhere. This trend suggests
a healthy development for the character of new Englishes worldwide. The
pedagogical implication of these processes relates to acceptability. Once the
“acceptability factor” (Bamgbose 1998: 4) is guaranteed, that is, when innovations
become accepted by speakers, the next process will be to codify the new
norms in the form of variety-specific grammars and the common grammar of
new Englishes. To further aid the codification of these various grammars, there
is a great need for comparative studies of the syntax of New Englishes.
Syntactic innovation processes … 403
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