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Opinions of Sunday, 19 April 2015

Columnist: Azindoo, Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq

Literary discourse: Why “can be able” is wrong

The phrase “can be able” is one of the common errors in spoken and written English in Ghana. Indeed, it is an error frequently committed by many users of the language: experts and laymen, teachers and students, directors and messengers, adults and children. It is not that they do not know but that errors are inevitable in human communication or language usage. This analysis seeks to establish the category of the error, the justification of contention, and the illustration of the erroneous phrase under review.

Learning Outcomes
By the end of this analysis, fellow learners/readers should be able to enhance their understanding of:
• TAUTOLOGY in the context of the phrase “CAN BE ABLE.”

It is ideal in Error Analysis to provide justifications of contentions within the context of language rules and conventions. The phrase under review is wrong because it amounts to TAUTOLOGY which is, to a large extent, a grammatical offence. This assertion is corroborated by the Oxford Dictionary of English which defines TAUTOLOGY as “the saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a FAULT OF STYLE.” The derivatives of TAUTOLOGY are tautological or tautologous [adjective], tautologically [adverb], tautologist [noun as the doer/actor], and tautologize or tautologise [verb]. This justification can easily be understood if the phrase in question – can be able – is illustrated in semantic and grammatical contexts.

As a phrase, “can be able” is divided into two verbs of the same meaning. These are “CAN” and “BE ABLE.” “CAN” is a modal in English. Modals are also called Auxiliary verbs or Modal Auxiliaries. These are helping verbs used with main verbs to indicate a range of modality: ability, possibility, probability, and permissibility among others. “CAN” therefore indicates ability to do something. An example is “Azindoo can write.” Note that in this construction “CAN” helps us to express the ability of Azindoo to write. If it is removed, the construction will change grammatically and semantically. This implies that the structure and meaning of the sentence will change. For example, “Azindoo writes.” Now “write” has become “writes” – inclusive of the morpheme “S” to comply with the principle of concord [subject–verb agreement in grammar]. The meaning of the sentence too has changed; it is no longer a matter of Azindoo’s ability to write. It now shows that Azindoo does the writing.
Synonymously, “BE ABLE” is a phrasal verb meaning the ability to do something. In this context, it is an infinitive: a verb in its basic form belonging to no tense. Usually, an infinitive is preceded by the word “to”, which is NOT regarded as a preposition but as a sign of the infinitive. Examples are “to be able”, “to read”, “to write.” Now it is clear that “CAN” and “BE ABLE” are of the same meaning and should not be used in the same sentence for a common meaning. The only difference is that “BE ABLE” can be expressed in almost all the tenses, but “CAN” is limited to present simple and past simple. Let us exemplify this fact in the conjugation of “CAN” and “BE ABLE” into present simple and past simple tenses.

CAN: Present Simple
First Person Singular: [I can], Second Person Singular: [You can], Third Person Singular: [He/She/It can].
First Person Plural: [We can], Second Person Plural: [You can], Third Person Plural: [They can].

Past Simple
First Person Singular: [I could], Second Person Singular: [You could], Third Person Singular: [He/She/It could].
First Person Plural: [we could], Second Person Plural: [You could], Third Person Plural: [They could].

BE ABLE: Present Simple
First Person Singular: [I am able], Second Person Singular: [You are able], Third Person Singular: [He/She/It is able].
First Person Plural: [We are able], Second Person Plural: [You are able], Third Person Plural: [They are able].

Past Simple
First Person Singular [I was able], Second Person Singular [You were able], Third Person Singular [He/She/It was able].
First Person Plural [We were able], Second Person Plural [You were able], Third Person Plural [They were able].
Let us randomly conjugate “BE ABLE” into the various tenses to prove our contention that it is available in all the tenses. Call it a verbal “utility player” and you are right. Hahahahahaa! Present Continuous [Azindoo is being able], Present Perfect [Azinpaga has been able], Past Perfect [Abena had been able], Past Continuous [We were being able], Future Simple [Kofi and Tiyumba will be able], Future Perfect [Sumanguru and Sundiata will have been able].
In the light of the above illustration, it has become obvious that “can be able” is ungrammatical. That is why the Oxford Dictionary defines “CAN” as “be able to.” So, “Azindoo can write” is the same as “Azindoo is able to write.” Similar constructions of grammatical deviations are “final conclusion” [anything final is conclusive], “autonomous on its own” [anything autonomous is on its own], “but rather”, [‘but’ and ‘rather’ are both transitional devices of contrast], “one after the other in succession” [‘one after the other’ means ‘in succession’], and “so therefore” [‘so’ and ‘therefore’ are transitional devices of consequence]. It is instructive to note that TAUTOLOGY can be accepted as a literary device to achieve a special effect in literature, especially in poetry, but it is generally not entertained in grammar.

It is significant to state that Error Analysis is not a mark of knowledge; it is rather a source of learning. It encourages the learner to understand error commission and correction. This way, knowledge is expanded, the scope of the learner broadened, and commission of errors demystified. But we need to be very cautious when we embark on the controversial linguistic exercise. This piece of advice is justified in the following words: “Humans are prone not only to commit language errors themselves but also to err in their judgments of those errors committed by others” (James, 1998: 204).

Bybee, J. Perkins, R., & Pagliuca, W. (1994). The evolution of grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
James, C. (1998). Errors in language learning and use. London: Routledge.
Oxford dictionary of English. (2010). (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Palmer, F. R. (2001). Mood and modality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management (UAM), Germany – Ghana Campus, McCarthy Hill, Accra and Tamale
Email: Tell: 0244755402