Literally assuming duty

SAMPLE 1: “Not long ago the funny character who presides over the affairs of Kano State as governor, Umar Ganduje, raised the alarm that the Federal Government had literarily abandoned the state in its quest to combat the rampaging coronavirus epidemic.”(Kano and the mad woman of Omu-Ijebu, Opera Mini, an online medium, 2 May, 2020)

Let’s pay attention to the adverb literarily which occurs in the following context: “raised the alarm that the Federal Government hadliterarily abandoned the state.” This word makes absolutely no sense in this context because the reference has nothing to do with literature and the word is morphologically and semantically related to literature.

The adjective literary and the adverb literarily are related to the noun literature. If that is the case, as we are sure it is, it would mean that the reporter intends his statement to be taken in the sense in which words are taken in literature—figuratively, metaphorically. But that would be the exact opposite of what the writer intends.

In the light of this confusion, we need to clarify the usage and meanings of the following words: literal, literally; literary, literarily.

Please read the following sentences: 1) When the Ifa priest said the man was blind, he did not mean it in its literal sense. 2) The word ‘die’ is not to be taken in its literal sense in the sentence, ‘The man dies in every man who is silent in the face of tyranny.’ 3) In its literal sense, light is about physical illumination, something that prevents people from stumbling.

Those sentences illustrate the way the adjective literal is typically used. The word literal is the opposite of metaphorical or figurative. The literal sense of a word is its ordinary sense, the sense in which it is commonly used, without additional ‘colour’ or contextually acquired meaning. For example, if I say, ‘The boy picked up some stones and began to pelt me,’ I have used the word stone in its ordinary or literal or common sense. On the other hand, if I say, ‘The man has a heart of stone’, I have used the word stone not in its ordinary sense but in a figurative or metaphorical sense. The adjective literal invariably carries a sense of contrast whether in an explicit or implicit way with the idea of the figurative or metaphorical sense.

The adverb form of literal is literally. Please read the following sentences: 1) During the June 12 protests, all sectors of the Nigerian life literally came to a standstill. 2) The mountain involved in a volcano will be found to be boiling literally at the time the volcano occurs. 3) The congregation was made up of old men and women and the heads that I saw from the pulpit were literally white. 4) Morally bankrupt, his life almost literally stinks as much as would a septic tank. 5) The news literally broke his heart as he collapsed and died instantly. 6) Wherever he went and whatever he did, his wife was always literally behind him.

Whenever the context may tempt the reader to interpret a pivotal word in its figurative or metaphorical sense, the writer feels under obligation to qualify or define the word with the adjective literal or its adverb literally. For example, the compound word empty-headed is used in its figurative sense, rarely in its literal sense. The common interpretation is likely to be applied to the idea of head and empty in the sentence, ‘His head is almost literally empty.’ To guide the reader, we have brought in the adverb literally. The use of the adverb literally can be explained in this way in the six sentences above.

Now read the following sentences: 1) What are the literary merits of that writing? 2) Some literary writers are also scientists. 3) That is the man who taught me literary appreciation. 4) Must literary style always be colourful or flowery? 5) You have not properly mastered literary language. 6) Some newspapers have sections for literary criticism.

The adjective literary is related to the nouns literature and literacy. We use the adjective for writing in general and literature in particular. Literary arts refers to poetry, drama and prose—those works of art we have in mind when literature is mentioned. In other words, literarymerits are qualities or values associated with literature; literary writers write poems, plays and novels; literaryappreciation is an effort at understanding and evaluating literature; literary language refers to the language associated with literature.

What we have said about the adjective literary is also applicable to the adverb literarily. You could say: ‘The writing is literarily deficient’, by which is meant that the writing does not possess some good qualities of literature.

Do not say: *He was literarily soaked in oil. Rather say: He was literally soaked in oil. Do not say: *The whole town literarily went up in smoke. You should say: The whole town literally went up in smoke. Do not say: *What is the literary meaning of the word? You should say: What is the literal meaning of the word?

Other expressions that may interest readers are: literaltranslation; literary language; literary scholars; literarylanguage. At any rate, let the word literally replace literarily in the context under review.

Sample 2: “Prof Ibrahim Gambari this morning has arrived the presidential villa, Abuja in preparation to resume as the new Chief of Staff to the president.”(Gambari arrives villa…Mini Opera, Wed, 13 May, 2020)

I draw readers’ attention to the verb resume which occurs in the context, “Gambari…to resume as the new Chief of Staff to the president” The writer has obviously confused the verbresume with assume, for the context does make it clear that the reference is to the circumstance of Gambari commencing work as Chief of Staff to the president. It is important to note the forms of the word in question: The noun form of assume is assumption; of resume is resumption.

The problem of insufficient grasp of the nuances of a word resulting in confusing its identity with that of another with varying degrees of seriousness is endemic in the Nigerian usage terrain. The problem arises because writers don’t care enough to make the words their “own” by thoroughly and consciously internalizing their essential and distinguishing properties.

The word resume under review here is a typical example. The impression the writer gives when he uses the verbresume, as in many instances of the use of that verb or its noun form (resumption) in the Nigerian context, is that Gambari has been on a break and has come back to work.

Some Nigerians would say, “The newly appointed Minister will resume duty on July 1” when they mean, “The newly appointed Minister will assume duty on July 1”. They would say, “The new Inspector-General of Police will resume duty next week” when they mean, “The new Inspector-General of Police will assume duty next week”.

We need to make a distinction between assumption of duty (which is about commencing work for the first time) and resumption of duty (which is about coming back to work after a break). To resume work is to begin to work again after one has stopped working, and to assume duty is to report for an assignment for the first time.

At any rate, the verb assume should replace resume in the context under review.



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