Very suspect: Why Lai Mohammed’s grammar is not wrong

As part of his defence of the ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, a couple of days ago said the social media giant’s mission in Nigeria was very, very suspect. The statement has generated some heat, not in terms of the message it is meant to convey, but in terms of its grammatical status. Simply put, many people believe that Mohammed committed a grammatical blunder.

So happy are some of them that they have been circulating it to mock him. Indeed, it has become another raw material for folks who manufacture or reinforce jokes with the likes of ‘There are many mineral resources like Coke and Fanta’, ‘My oga at the top’ ‘There is God o’ and ‘Aye le o, ibosi o.’

The fact, however, is that saying something is suspect does not constitute a blunder. Truly (not truely) speaking, it sounds odd. So odd does it ring that you would think it is an error. That is why one of the comedians who took on the minister tries to correct him by asking, ‘You mean very suspicious?’ No matter how odd the phrase sounds, however, it is a standard one because ‘something is suspicious’ and ‘something is suspect’ are both correct.

Of course, apart from having to bear in mind that language is not music that should always sound melodious, there are several ear-jolting expressions like ‘is suspect’. It is the same English that, for instance, says ‘You have to go there now’ that also accepts ‘It is time you went there’ or ‘It is high time you went there’, when the action has yet to take place. It also features ‘Akin and Ade are here’ in one context but insists on ‘Akin as well as Ade is here’ in another. And I hope you remember this too:

I pray he go there tomorrow. (Correct. Not ‘I pray he goes there tomorrow’, because you are now in the court of the subjunctive mood!

Back to ‘very, very suspect’.

The word, ‘suspect’, is usually a noun or a verb. When it is a noun, it can refer to a person who is alleged to have done something negative, as in committing a crime. When it is a verb, it can, among other usages, express our belief or suspicion about the person concerning the crime:

Evans is a suspect in the abduction case. (A noun)

The police suspect he is a kidnapper. (A verb)

The term can, however, also be used as an adjective, which is what Lai Mohammed has done in the controversial statement. When you say someone’s action or disposition is suspect, it means you believe it harbours another intention beyond what the person says. It could mean that you think it portends a hidden agenda. And, as puts it, ‘suspect’ as an adjective means not able to be trusted, possibly false or dangerous. Here is an example by the dictionary:

I can’t understand why my reasons seem suspect to a number of people.

Explaining more, says if something is suspect, it seems likely to be dishonest, dangerous, criminal etc.:

The Financial Services Authority is cracking down on banks and brokers that have failed to report suspect deals by clients.

Bomb disposal experts destroyed a suspect package found at the airport.

In the examples, the adjectives mostly come before the words they describe, meaning that they are qualifying them (the nouns). But they can also come after such, thus modifying them. Consider this pair too:

The agency is monitoring the suspect deals.

The agency is monitoring deals that are suspect.

There is, therefore, no grammatical error in the minister’s statement. The only thing someone can quarrel about is whether or not Twitter has a hidden agenda as the minister claims, but that is beyond the high court of our grammar class. So, one basic lesson in the Lai Mohammed’s example — I should add — is that when you come across an ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ expression, exercise patience before you say, ‘Ibon’ or dub it a blunder. It may not be. Maybe it is an opportunity for you to learn a new usage.