After I exposed the blatant plagiarism of my grammar column by a Phrank Shaibu last week, the culprit not only shamelessly denied it (on Facebook and other online platforms) even though he’d called and texted me countless times over the issue (Sunday Trust editor Theophilus Abba and my phone records can testify to this), he is also sponsoring a slew of people to launch attacks on me. (I even learned he has threatened to sue me for libel. The cheek of it!).
Most of the attacks are so asinine they are unworthy of my response. But I am compelled to respond to a particularly dishonest and ignorant article by a Silas Sakhos Ejiofoh who claims to find me guilty of plagiarism. When I first read his barely literate article, I laughed out so loud my ribs almost cracked. I laughed out even louder when I heard that Phrank says my university has queried me as a result of that illiterate write-up.
Silas rambled on about me being a Fulani jihadist (I’m neither a Fulani nor a jihadist) who hates Igbos (which is, of course, untrue) and who wanted to be “chief press secretary of his fellow Fulani Mohammadu Buhari, had Buhari won the last presidential election. Then, he would have conveniently become the minister of education and then a head of state.”
How do you respond to such pitiful inanity? Silas Ejiofoh is clearly one ignorant little kid with too much time on his hand—or an infantile adult consumed by rank hatred and malicious illiteracy. Well, it isn’t all the false and childish charges he leveled against me that I am responding to; it is the crying ignorance he displayed about what plagiarism is and isn’t. I want to use his ignorance as a teachable moment.
What plagiarism is
I have been teaching journalism in the United State for close to a decade now and was Managing Editor of a peer-reviewed US academic journal for four years. So I know a thing or two about plagiarism. I also routinely use Turnitin, (a plagiarism detection service to which almost all US universities are subscribed) to check for intentional and unintentional plagiarism in my students’ papers and in the articles of contributors to the journal I edited. I also run my own work by Turnitin.
So let’s start with what constitutes plagiarism. The most obvious form of plagiarism is when you substantially copy another person’s exact words and ideas in whole or in part and pass them off as yours, such as what Phrank Shaibu habitually did (perhaps still does) to my grammar column on Facebook, and on ChannelsTV, Radio Kogi and KISS FM.
To give just one example, a member of Phrank Shaibu’s now deleted or super-secret MIND YOUR GRAMMAR Facebook group (why the heck did he delete or hide the group if he wasn’t guilty of plagiarism?) asked why he thought the expression “extreme end” was bad usage even when it enjoys social approval.
And this was Phrank’s long, incoherent response, which is stolen from my previous article, as you will see shortly. It goes thus:
“The fact that lexicographers have to come to terms with the semantic extension ‘extreme end’ does not make it very appropriate as you said. The phrase ‘extreme end’ is a redundant expression that became fossilised in the use of the language. The linguistic invention /error became codified in notable dictionaries because of its currency of usage in the native-speaker environment, since English is now for all practical purposes, the global language. For evidence, see how several American idiosyncratic words that were never captured in any dictionary made it to the Oxford Dictionary last year. The word ‘unfriend,’ which means ‘to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook,’ was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2009.
“Please, ask any of our younger ones [sic] to use it while writing an essay in any examination. He [sic] will [sic] be marked wrong! The teachers will [sic] consider it colloquial and informal…that’s just by the way! [Note: This paragraph is composed entirely of Phrank’s original words, and you can see his struggles with tenses, subject-verb agreement, and punctuations].
“Other America-centric words that made it to the dictionary are sexting (‘the sending of sexually explicit texts and pictures by cellphone’), intexticated (‘distracted because texting on a cell phone while driving a vehicle’), freemium (‘a business model in which some basic services are provided for free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for additional, premium features or content’), funemployed (‘taking advantage of one’s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests’), birther (‘a conspiracy theorist who challenges President Obama’s birth certificate’), teabagger (‘a person, who protests President Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as “Tea Party” protests’), deleb (‘a dead celebrity’), tramp stamp (‘a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman’), etc.
“In fact, a word in the Nigerian linguistic repertoire that bears testament to our linguistic creativity is the word ‘co- wife’ or ‘co-wives,’ which we use to denote female partners in a polygamous marriage. I smiled proudly the other day when a recent BBC report used ‘co- wives’ in a story about South African President Jacob Zuma’s marriage to his third wife….
“As we internationalize the cultural and culinary practices that these words denote, through our ever- expanding diasporas, we also need to self- consciously export the creative linguistic products that accompany them…
“I do hope you now understand my frustration as a linguistic activist and language teacher? [sic]. My believe [sic] at all times is that, as second language learners, we must learn the grammar of the English Language [sic] before making pretentions about the mastery of the Language [sic]…I hope this helps! [Note: This paragraph is also original to Phrank Shaibu. You can see, too, that he can’t differentiate between “believe” and “belief,” doesn’t know when to use a question mark, and can’t tell when to use lower case or upper case letters, but he fancies himself as a “linguistic activist and language teacher”!]
Except where indicated, every single sentence from Phrank Shaibu’s response was stolen from my January 6, 2010 article in the People’s Daily and on my blog titled, “In Defense of Flashing and Other Nigerianisms.” It was republished on June 5, 2011 in my Sunday Trust “Politics of Grammar” column.
(The screenshot above is plagiarized from my article titled “Top Cutest and Strangest Nigerian English Idioms” first published on June 20, 2010 in the People’s Daily and on my blog. It was republished in my Sunday Trust “Politics of Grammar” column on June 19, 2011. )
(The above screenshot is a continuation of the previous one. Here, we see unsuspecting people praising Phrank Shaibu for possessing stolen intellectual property. You can also see him insulting a commenter who asked for clarification on what he posted. Also see below screenshots of Phrank Shaibu the plagiarist being praised to high heavens by an unsuspecting fan on account of his unearned reputation as a grammarian. See his response in the third screen.)
What Plagiarism isn’t
Now, an ignoramus that goes by the name Silas Sakhos Ejiofoh wrote that I’d committed plagiarism in the past because some words I’d used in previous articles bear faint resemblances to some words he found on the Internet, even though the contexts in which those words were used are vastly different from mine. Going by his illiterate logic, every writer is a plagiarist since all writers draw from a pool of words that have been used and reused over time. In fact, when I Googled a couple of the phrases he used in his article, I found a bunch of them used by other writers before him.
He started his allegations with a patently made-up claim. He wrote: “… in his most recent attack on Abati and in support of his fellow Fulani, Buhari […] he writes, ‘an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up. …’ The words belong to somebody else. It appears in the same form ‘an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up’ in somebody else’s write up. See: http://www.audioenglish.net/dictionary/idiom.htm”
First, that quotation is the dictionary definition of an idiom. In my article titled, “Idioms, Mistranslations and Reuben Abati’s Double Standards,” to which he dishonestly refused to provide a link, I inserted quotation marks around the definition. The witless cretin didn’t even know it was a dictionary definition; he said “the words belong to somebody else.”
Secondly, I have used that same definition in at least five previous articles, the earliest being my September 2007 article, where I wrote: “I guess Nigerians coined the expression “send-forth party” because “send-off” seems distant, even hostile…. But linguists would call this reasoning naïve, if not downright ignorant, because the definition of an idiom—which is what this phrase is— is that it is an expression ‘whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make it up.’”
He also isolated random phrases from my April 7, 2011 article titled “Top 10 Words Nigerians Commonly Misspell,” to allege that I have plagiarized from other people. For instance, in the article, I wrote: “English is a notoriously aphonetic language.” And he found a November 1, 2010 article about “Big Foot” where a linguist said, in response to a question in a news interview: “since English is notoriously non-phonetic and is subject to widely-varied local dialects….” So he concluded that I plagiarized from the story.
First, I swear to God and my honor (I know that’s unnecessary) that I’d never seen that story—and most of the other links he cited to malign me— until I read his drivel. You can’t plagiarize what you haven’t read.
Second, the two sentences are completely unrelated, except for the appearance of the word “notoriously”—and maybe “aphonetic” and “non-phonetic,” which are basic conceptual vocabularies in English grammar. And as anyone familiar with my writing will tell you, “notoriously” is a favorite adverb/intensifier of mine. A quick search on my blog shows that the word appeared nearly 30 times in my previous articles.
In another bizarre example, someone wrote in a March 2009 thesis, which I’d never read until I followed Silas’ link: “text messaging is a largely unexplored and highly distinctive language.” And I wrote the following in the same April 7, 2011 article referenced above: “With the advent of textese (i.e., the distinctive language and spelling conventions of cellphone text messages)…” The idiot said I plagiarized the first sentence.
In another example in the same April 7, 2011 article, I wrote: “it needs to be pointed out that native speakers of the English language are just as awful with spelling as the rest of us non-native speakers of the language—if not more so. ” And someone else wrote: “Why are native English speakers so bad at spelling their own language?” Silas said I plagiarized the second sentence. You be the judge.
This is true of all the instances he cited of my alleged plagiarism: he copied a bunch of phrases from my write-ups, pasted them on Google, and when he found one or two similarities in wording between my article and any random, unrelated article (even when, in some cases, my articles were published months, sometimes years, before the articles I was supposed to have plagiarized) he convinced his pea-sized brain that he “caught” this supercilious grammar Nazi plagiarizing.
Teachable Moment for Silas and his sponsors
So, what am I getting at? Plagiarism occurs only when there is evidence of wholesale lifting of the exact order of another person’s words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs such as the case of Phrank Shaibu who passed off my entire articles as his. (See more evidence below). But accidental similarities in verbiage between two unrelated ideas don’t constitute plagiarism.
Similarly, using fixed expressions from the pool of disciplinary and cultural linguistic repertoire isn’t plagiarism. For instance, in the (American) academe, researchers have a vast multitude of stereotyped expressions like, “my research explores the intersection between,” “let’s problematize/complexify,” “the theoretical framework that undergirds/underpins…,” etc. Those phrases are part of the shared linguistic heritage of (US) academe. Call them academese, if you like. No one has copyright over them.
Of course, if someone constructs an entire sentence similar to some else’s even when those shared phrases are included in them, that would qualify as plagiarism. To draw another example from my April 07, 2011 article again, I wrote that someone’s suggestion that we accept popular misspellings as mere variants is “a recipe for orthographic anarchy.”
Silas found an article where someone was also characterized as an “orthographic anarchist.” So he said I plagiarized “orthographic anarchy” from that person’s use of “orthographic anarchist” to describe someone. If he was even half-way intelligent, he would have realized that “orthographic anarchy” is a concept in linguistics. If you search the phrase on Google, you will find over 2000 results. Is everybody plagiarizing everybody then?
As I said earlier, conceptual vocabularies can’t be plagiarized if they are used appropriately. So are many expressions that belong in what literary theorists call the popular imagination—idioms, proverbs, fixed phrases, fossilized turns of phrase, etc. For instance, in 2008, former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said, “We see America as the greatest force for good in this world.” On September 25 this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, “I believe that America has been one of the greatest forces for good the world has ever known.”
Did Romney plagiarize Palin because the phrase “America is a force for good” is present in his speech? No. The expression is a collective linguistic inheritance of American conservatives. Google it and you will find thousands of hits dating back to the dim and distant past.
As the US Supreme Court ruled years ago, ideas and facts are not copyrightable; only their presentation is. Besides, as Daniel M. Feeney and Bradley L. Cohn point out in their article titled, “You Wrote It, But Who Owns It? An Overview of Copyright Law, “copyright law recognizes what is called a de minimis defense. This defense permits, in effect, copying material that is quantitatively and qualitatively insignificant in relation to the copied work as a whole.” This is different from Phrank Shaibu who, as you saw in the screenshots, copied everything I’d written, which he has been presenting as his on several platforms.
Of course, copyright and plagiarism are different but they are similar in many respects because they are both concerned with protecting the presentation of authors’ original thoughts and ideas.
I would never have responded to Silas Ejiofoh’s laughable ignorance had the compulsively plagiarizing and pathologically lying Phrank Shaibu not caused his minions to push it to divert attention from his intellectual theft—and to even lie that my university is probing me because of it.
As a public commentator and newspaper columnist who is sometimes a thorn in the flesh of fraudsters, corrupt government officials, and insensitive bureaucrats, I expect to attract vicious attacks on my person. But no one has the right to plagiarize my hard work—or impugn my intellectual and moral integrity.