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oa Marang : Journal of Language and Literature - On the mastery of the arrangement of english complex modifiers by some Yoruba learners of english


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1816-7659 /04/09 81-93 © Akinmade Timothy Akande Marang: Journal of Language and Literature Vol. 19 2009


Akinmade Timothy Akande∗


This study investigated the mastery of English complex modifiers by some Senior Secondary School III pupils who are Yoruba speakers of English. The major aims of the study were first, to find whether the subjects had adequate proficiency in the acquisition of complex modifiers and second, to examine whether the types of secondary school attended (i.e., government/public secondary schools or individual/private secondary schools) by the subjects or the gender of the subjects have any significant effect on their mastery of English complex modifiers. The data collection methods used for the study were of two types. The first was an essay test administered to the students while the second was a questionnaire. The study found that the proficiency of our subjects in the mastery of English complex modifiers was inadequate. It was also discovered that although the types of school attended by the subjects has significant effect on their performance, gender has no significant effect in the acquisition of the English complex modifiers by the subjects.

Keywords: complex modifiers, arrangement and Yoruba learners

1. Introduction

Many aspects of the English grammar have been identified as difficult to acquire by Nigerian learners of English (Alo and Mesthrie 2004; Ubahakwe 2001). One of the causes of this is the syntactic differences between the mother tongue(s) (MT) of these learners and English. In this paper, I examine the mastery of the arrangement of modifiers within the structure of the English nominal group (ENG) by some Senior Secondary School III (SSSIII) students whose mother tongue is Yoruba. In order to achieve this aim, the study attempts to answer the following questions:

a) Do SSSIII Yoruba learners of English make use of sequence of adjectives and nouns in their writing?

b) Do they have adequate mastery in the arrangement of the modifiers within ENGs?

c) Can the mastery of the complex modifiers within ENG be influenced significantly by the types of secondary schools attended by the learners?

The two hypotheses proposed are as follows:


i) There is no significant difference in the performance of students on complex modifiers of ENGs across schools.

ii) There is no significant difference in the performance of male and female students with respect to complex modifiers of ENGs.

My focus in this paper is on adjective and noun sequences within ENG as this is the area of ENG that constitutes a teething problem to Nigerian learners of English generally and Yoruba learners of English specifically. In this work, the term noun

phrase is coterminous with the English nominal group.

2. The Nominal Group in English

The nominal group can be considered to be ‘typically a group with a noun (or pronoun) as its head, and that noun may be modified but it does not have to be modified in order to constitute a group in this technical sense’ (Bloor and Bloor 2004:31). The noun phrase can have many modifiers which belong to different word classes and as Ubahakwe (2001:109) points out, the noun phrase with a multi-variate modifier structure often poses problems to second language learners of English as ‘the grammar of the English language insists that members of the Word classes follow one another in a particular fixed sequence.’ Akande (1999; 2002) also note that most Yoruba learners of English especially those in the secondary schools do not often make use of ENG containing more than one or two modifiers.

The Yoruba learners’ of English difficulty, with reference to the proper arrangement of modifiers is compounded by two factors. First, it is not common to find multi-variate modifier structure in Yoruba noun phrases. Secondly, while most adjectives in Yoruba come after the headword, in English adjectives often come before the headword within ENG. Therefore, there is a syntactic difference between Yoruba and English. Also important is the fact that the same items that can appear at the premodifying position in Yoruba (i.e., the numerals) can also appear at the postmodifying position (cf. Akindele 1983) whereas in English, the numerals cannot occur after the headword.


(2002:278) say that ‘A related principle for multiple adjectives is that descriptors tend to precede classifiers’ while Muir (1972:32) hints that when there are multiple adjectives, the adjective denoting size comes before the one denoting

quality while the one denoting quality must come before the one signalling age. As

illustrations, he states that while a tall young man and a precious young thing are correct, a young tall man and a young precious thing are not.

3. Research Methodology

The subjects who participated in this study were 116 SSSIII students drawn from four secondary schools in Ile-Ife. The subjects’ mother tongue, as pointed out above, is Yoruba. The research instruments used were of two types. The first was an essay test administered to the students. They were asked to write an essay composition entitled Narrate your experience during the first week in secondary school. This was to assess their productive skills in the use of modifiers generally. The second type was a questionnaire which was divided into three sections A, B and C. Section A of the questionnaire was designed to elicit personal information concerning their language background and tribe. Section B consisted of ten items each of which carried two marks. Each of these items contained various kinds of modifiers occurring in a jumbled manner. The subjects were then asked to arrange the modifiers. Section C comprised twenty items. Each item was an objective question with four options. Out of these options, in only one were the modifiers properly sequenced and the subjects were to choose the correct option. Each of these carried one mark.

The idea of introducing the items in Section B is to check the abuse to which questions in Section C may be subject. Without really knowing the answer, one might guess the correct answer in Section C. However, this is not possible with the items in Section B as the ability to arrange the modifiers properly in this section requires a high level of knowledge of English; this is why each item in this section carried 2 marks. Most of the items in Sections B and C were adopted from various sources such as West African Senior School Certificate (Paper 2) Examination, internet, grammar books etc. In the analysis of the data, we use a t-test and analysis of variance statistics at 0.05 probability level. The t-test is used to find the significance of difference between two sets of scores while ANOVA can be used to investigate the significance of deviance between three or more sets of scores. We also use a descriptive method to see whether or not the subjects actually used complex ENG in their written texts.

4. Data Analysis and Discussion


4.1. Research Question (a)

Do ESL learners make use of complex modifiers in their writing?

To answer this question, the types of ENG the subjects used were analysed in their essays. The commonly used type of nominal group by the subjects is the unmodified one which I will not discuss here as it is not within the focus of this paper. However, I have discussed this elsewhere (Akande 1999; 2002). Another type of NG common in their essays is one in which there is only one modifier, and this modifier is usually either a determiner or a possessive pronoun. Here are some examples from my data to show this:

1) They said we must buy one book on Mathematics. (Quantifier)

2) The teacher spoke the English well. (Determiner)

3) I met many friends from different places and we introduced ourselves. (Quantifier)

The substitution of the article a by one is evident in my data as example 1 indicates. The use of one could be seen as an instance of language transfer from Yoruba, the mother tongue of the subjects, to English as, instead of the traditional articles a/an and the, Yoruba makes use of ‘okan’ which translates to one in English. The use of one as a substitute has also been discussed in other varieties of English (e.g., Herat 2006). Equally noticeable is the insertion of the before the noun English in 2 which, to my mind, is borne of inadequate mastery of English. In English, articles cannot precede names of languages such as Yoruba, Igbo, French or English unless there is a postmodification element(s) as in The English he spoke

was fluent where he spoke serves as the premodification element. There were other

NG-related errors in the data collected. These errors arose as a result of the omission of articles. Examples of these errors are as follows:

4) We had nice time (a omitted before the word nice).

5) We were asked to collect uniform (a omitted before the word uniform). 6) Principal spoke to us that we should obeying school regulations (the

omitted before the word principal).

In 4 and 5 above, there was an omission of an indefinite article a while a definite article (i.e., the) is omitted in 6. The examples above reveal that even when the pupils attempt to use these modifiers, they often make mistakes. In order to provide answers to the other research questions (cf. Section 2.0), I had to introduce the last two sections of the questionnaire (cf. Appendix 1).

Even when they used two modifiers, there was a repetitive pattern manifested in the use of the the determiner (d) plus the ordinator (o) plus the

headword (h) or the repetition of the structure the determiner plus anepithet (e)

plus the headword. These two patterns (i.e. doh and deh) are very common in their


7) I met two boys that week (oh).

8) The first problem was how to get good water… (doh).

9) It is a beautiful compound (deh).

Out of all the subjects, it is interesting to note that only one made use of three modifiers. The example used was *The school beautiful lawns… and this reveals that this candidate had not mastered the proper arrangement of modifiers in English. This is so because in the sequence of modifiers, epithets (i.e. adjectives) usually precede nominals (i.e. nouns modifying the headword) and for this reason, one would expect school to appear directly before the headword lawns. Thus, instead of the normal denh structure, what the candidate used was a dneh structure.

4.2. Research Question (b)

Do they have a good mastery of the arrangement of modifiers within complex ENGs?

The second research question was intended to find out whether our subjects had a good mastery of the arrangement of modifiers within complex ENGs. In order to do this, we found the mean of all the scores obtained, which was approximately 18. Those who scored between 17 and 19 were considered to have an average level of proficiency in complex modifiers of ENGs; while those who scored above 19 were considered to have a high level of proficiency in modifiers of ENGs and those who scored below 17 were regarded as having a low level of competence in the mastery of the arrangement of complex modifiers of ENGs. The frequency of their scores from the lowest to the highest on the test of arrangement of modifiers in Section C of the questionnaire is presented in Appendix 2. The table below shows the competence level of our subjects.

Table 1: Distribution of Sample across Levels of Competence in the use of complex


Levels of Competence Frequency %

Low Level of Proficiency 85 73.28

Average Level of proficiency 15 12.93

High Level of Proficiency 16 13.79

Total 116 100.0


of complex modifiers. They scored 18 (i.e. 45 % of obtainable score) plus or minus one. The remaining 16 (13.79%) subjects had a high level of proficiency in the mastery of the arrangement of modifiers as they scored above 19 marks in the proficiency test. Thus, out of the 116 respondents, 28 (24.14%) scored above 45% which, for the purpose of this study, is the minimum score a candidate must have to be regarded as having an average proficiency with regard to the use and arrangement of English modifiers.

A further analysis of the responses of the subjects to questions in Sections B and C also reveals that they had problems with the proper sequencing of modifiers. I describe some of their responses to questions in Section B with a view to analyzing their performances descriptively. The majority of the subjects wrote “*The only other fresh two loaves” and “*John’s laboratory expensive five books” in response to questions 5 and 6 of Section B respectively. As may be gathered from these responses, there was a regular pattern of error in that, in each case, the subjects placed the ordinator (i.e., two in 5 and five in 6) directly before the headword while they should have come immediately after the deictics so that the correct responses could have been “The only other two fresh loaves” in 5 and “John’s five expensive laboratory books” in 6. In addition to the wrong placement of the ordinator, most of the subjects in response to question 6 placed laboratory, which is a nominal modifier, before expensive which is an epithet. This is contrary to the ordering of the pre-modification elements permitted in English.

In the same vein, the responses of most of the subjects to questions 3 and 4 revealed that their competence with respect to the use of the epithet was low. The most frequent responses to questions 3 and 4 of this section were respectively “*All

my four delightful extremely mahogany chairs” and “*The boring international

typical trade conference.” As we can see, while their response to 3 is wrong because the word extremely, which modifies delightful directly should have come before and not after it, the response to 4 is incorrect because the word typical occurs in a wrong position. This word (i.e., typical) should occur between the and boring.

However, one thing is interesting here. Most subjects correctly placed the noun modifier (i.e. mahogany in 3 and trade in 4) in each case correctly. This is in contradistinction to the responses of many of the subjects to question 6, where the noun modifier or the nominal (i.e. laboratory) is wrongly placed. This leads to my suspicion that the majority of the subjects have not fully mastered the place occurrences of epithets and nominals generally. This suspicion is further strengthened by some responses to question 9. While the majority of the subjects got the place ordering correctly here (i.e. by writing “All those silly grammar

exercises”), some placed grammar (a nominal) before silly (an epithet) thereby

yielding *All those grammar silly exercises.


a *Mary’s only respectable half pair. b *Only half respectable Mary’s pair. c *Only respectable Mary’s half pair.

It is evident from the performances of the subjects that they did not have adequate proficiency in the use and arrangement of a sequence of English modifiers.

4.3. Test of Hypothesis

4.3.1. Hypothesis One

There is no significant difference in the performance of students on complex modifiers of ENGs across schools.

The scores of sample were sorted according to school from where the sample was drawn. The breakdown of the scores is as follows:

Table 2: Descriptive Statistics on School Type and Performance in Complex


School N

Mean Score

Std. Deviation

Minimum Score

Maximum Score Moremi High School 30 13.20 4.84 6.00 20.00 Ambassadors College 30 10.80 3.51 1.00 20.00 Obafemi Awolowo University

International School 27 18.26 5.16 8.00 25.00 Oluorogbo School of Science

29 9.62 2.72 4.00 17.00

Total 116 12.86 5.24 1.00 25.00


standard deviation scores are low, it means there is high group homogeneity and vice-versa (Ott and Longnecker, 2001). Furthermore, the minimum and maximum scores from each of the schools follow the same pattern (i.e. schools with the highest maximum score also have the highest minimum score except Ambassadors College that has one mark as the lowest score). Were it not for the nature of scores of Ambassadors College on complex modifiers of ENGs, one would have conveniently concluded that school attended could affect performance in complex modifiers of ENGs. Although there are differences in the scores of subjects, the differences from school to school is worth investigating to determine whether or not there is a significant difference. This was done using One-Way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA).

Table 3: ANOVA Summary Table - School Attended and Performance in Complex



Sum of

Squares df


Square Fcal. Fcrit.

Between Groups 1222.18 3 407.39

23.57 1.39

Within Groups 1935.61 112 17.28

Total 3157.79 115

P< 0.05 (Result Significant)

The calculated ‘F’ (23.57) is greater than the critical ‘F’. This means the result is significant. Thus the null hypothesis is rejected. The result showed that there is a significant difference in the scores of students due to school attended. The school sites of subjects from both OAU International School and Moremi High School are located within the campus of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), the latter was a private school belonging to the University but was taken over by the state government and this led to the establishment of the former as a privately owned university secondary school. The nature of the environment of the two schools might be responsible for the fairly good performance.

4.3.2. Hypothesis Two

There is no significant difference in the performance of male and female students with respect to complex modifiers of ENGs.

Table 4: t-Test: Sex and Performance in Complex Modifiers

Sex N Mean

Std. Deviation

tcal. df tcrit.

Male 77 13.05 4.92 0.52 38 1.68

Female 39 12.49 5.88


The data set was sorted into two groups based on samples’ gender. The data were then subjected to ‘t-test’ statistics using Moonlight analytical software. The scores of the two groups are not statistically significantly different in terms of their mean scores (t=0.52; df=38; p>0.05) although male candidates had a higher mean score (13.05) while their female counterparts had 12.49 (Table 4). This means that gender has no significant influence on the students’ ability to use complex modifiers of ENGs. Thus, the null hypothesis that there is no significant difference in the performance of male and female students with respect to complex modifiers of ENGs is hereby accepted.

5. Summary and Conclusions

It has been demonstrated in this paper that SSS3 Yoruba learners of English have not really mastered the use of English nominal groups with complex modifiers. This low level of mastery of ENG with complex modifiers might be a reflection of the inadequate mastery of English generally as some studies have shown (e.g., Babalola and Akande 2002; Olaoye 2000; Taiwo 2001). With respect to the proper arrangement of modifiers by Yoruba learners of English, this study has revealed that (1) the mastery of the complex modifiers of ENGs is not significantly affected by gender and (2) the nature of school attended by students (whether public or private) can significantly affect the performance of students in the mastery of English complex modifiers specifically and the English language generally.

Works Cited

Akande, A. T. (1999). The nominal group in the written English of Senior Secondary School Two (SSS2) Pupils in Ede Zone of Osun State, Nigeria. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Akande, A. T. (2002). Structural complexity and the acquisition of the HQ nominal group type in English. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 11 (2), 236-248. Akindele, D. O. (1983). The English nominal group for Yoruba speakers: a

description of an aspect of English as a second language. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Ife, Ile-Ife.

Alo, M. A. and R. Mesthrie. (2004). Nigerian English: morphology and syntax. In B. Kortmann, K. Burridge, R. Mesthrie, E. W. Schneider and C. Upton (Eds), A

handbook of varieties of English: Volume 2 (pp 813-827). New York:

Mouton de Gruyter.

Babalola E. T. and A. T. Akande. (2002). Some linguistic problems of Yoruba learners of English in Nigeria. ES: Revista de Filologia Inglesa, 24, 245-257. Biber, D., S. Conrad and G. Leech. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken

and written English. Essex: Longman.

Bloor, T and M. Bloor. (2004). The functional analysis of English: A Hallidayan

approach, (2nd edn). London: Hodder Arnold.

Herat, M. (2006). Substitute one in Sri Lankan English. Leeds Working Papers in


Muir, J. (1972). A modern approach to English grammar: An introduction to

systemic grammar. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.

Olaoye, A. A. (2000). A study of word formation problems in the written English of some senior secondary school III (SSS3) pupils in three local government areas of Osun State. Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Ott, R. and Longnecker, M. (2001). An introduction to statistical methods and

data analysis. Pacific Grove: Duxbury.

Taiwo, R. (2001). Lexico-semantic relation errors in Senior Secondary School students’ writing. Nordic Journal of African Studies 10 (3), 366-373.

Ubahakwe, E. (2001). The structure of noun phrase. In E. Ubahakwe and D Sogbesan (Eds). An English grammar for tertiary institutions, (pp. 92-116). Lagos: Stirling-Horden Publishers.

Appendix 1


Indicate or write down your response to the following:

1. Age: (a) 15- 18 (b) 18- 21 (c) 21- 24 (d) 24 and above 2 Class ---

3 Name of School_________________________ 4 Tribe _________________________

5 Native language spoken --- SECTION B

Below are ten nominal groups whose modifiers are inappropriately arranged. Arrange the modifiers in each of them properly and write down your response in the column under each of them. Note that the headword in each item is in italics

1. Clerks bookshop University office --- 2. Animal books those nice story two --- 3. Four all mahogany my extremely chairs delightful --- 4. International typical trade boring the conference --- 5. The two loaves only other fresh --- 6. Five John’s laboratory expensive books --- 7. ominous big storm those black clouds ---8. blue level eyes her very Scandinavian --- 9. all grammar silly exercises those --- 10. Only Mary’s pair half respectable --- SECTION C

For each of the questions below, there are four options. Chose the option in which the modifiers are properly arranged.


(b) the chapters first three (c) the first three chapters (d) the three chapters first

2. He bought __________________________ (a) an expensive, green, very American saloon car. (b) a expensive, very green,. American saloon car. (c) a very green, expensive, saloon American car. (d) a very expensive, American, green saloon car.

3. As things are now, I have to look for ________________ tyre. (a) a cheap, second-hand, rubber

(b) a cheap, rubber, second-hand (c) a rubber, cheap, second-hand (d) a second-hand, rubber cheap

4. Three weeks after ___________, the village had not recovered from the frightening experience.

(a.) another police surprise raid (b) another surprise police raid (c) police surprise another raid (d) another raid police surprise

5. Kemi is not _______________ as her brother. (a) a such good writer

(b) such good writer (c) as good a writer (d) a writer such good

6. The guests were ________________. (a) gaily all dressed

(b) all gaily dressed (c) dressed all gaily (d) dressed gaily all

7. __________________ ladies came.

(a) Two beautiful charming the young Scandinavian (b) The beautiful young two charming Scandinavian (c) The two beautiful charming young Scandinavian (d) The two young Scandinavian beautiful charming 8. We have sold ________________ wines.

(a) all the other old fine vintage (b) all the3 fine other old vintage (c) all the old other fine vintage (d) all the other fine old vintage

9. This is ____________________ rug. (a) an oriental thick beautiful old-fashioned (b) a beautiful oriental thick old-fashioned (c) an oriental beautiful old-fashioned thick (d) an oriental old-fashioned beautiful thick


(a) the Nigerian few first intelligent graduates. (b) the intelligent Nigerian first few graduates. (c) the first few Nigerian intelligent graduates. (d) the Nigerian first few intelligent graduates.

11. There is __________________ lagoon in that place. (a) a magnificent tropical blue calm

(b) a blue magnificent tropical calm (c) a calm magnificent blue tropical (d) a tropical magnificent calm blue

12. He bought _______________________ unmbrella. (a) a new brown lady’s

(b) a lady’s new brown (c) a brown new lady’s (d) a new lady’s brown

13. That ________________ girl died of AIDS. (a) young black Nigerian pretty

(b) pretty young black Nigerian (c) pretty Nigerian young black (d) young Nigerian black pretty

14. The teacher has bought ____________________ (a) the yellow large British carpet.

(b) the British yellow large carpet. (c) the large yellow British carpet. (d) the large British yellow carpet.

15. _____________________ books have been given out. (a) All the other very worn Canadian school

(b) All the other worn very Canadian school (c) All the very worn other school Canadian (d) All Canadian the other school very worn 16. ____________________ are frustrating.

(a) All these phonetic useless jargons (b) All these useless phonetic jargons (c) These all phonetic useless jargons (d) All these jargons useless phonetic 17. ______________________are missing

(a) Two very beautiful American Ade’s wrist-watches (b) Ade’s American two very beautiful wrist-watches (c) Ade’s two very beautiful American wrist-watches (d) Two very beautiful Ade’s American wrist-watches 18. The guy was bitten by _____________________

(a) the great big heavy dog. (b) the big heavy great dog. (c) the heavy great big dog. (d) the great heavy big dog.


(a) The first reasonable statement very (b) The reasonable very statement first (c) The statement reasonable very first (d) The very first reasonable statement

20 She is _________________ citizen of all the candidates. (a) the most law-abiding credible

(b) the most credible law-abiding (c) the law-abiding most credible (d) the credible most law-abidin

Appendix 2

Frequency of Scores from the Lowest to the Highest on Test of Arrangement of Modifiers of ENGs.

Score Freq (N) % Score Freq (N) %

1.00 1 .9 15.00 4 3.4

4.00 1 .9 16.00 4 3.4

5.00 1 .9 17.00 3 2.6

6.00 2 1.7 18.00 5 4.3

7.00 7 6.0 19.00 7 6.0

8.00 12 10.3 20.00 7 6.0

9.00 16 13.8 21.00 1 .9

10.00 9 7.8 22.00 1 .9

11.00 8 6.9 23.00 2 1.7

12.00 10 8.6 24.00 2 1.7

13.00 7 6.0 25.00 3 2.6


Table 2: Descriptive Statistics on School Type and Performance in Complex Modifiers
Table 4: t-Test: Sex and Performance in Complex Modifiers


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