A case for Kenyan English or an act of ‘murdering’ the language?

Thursday November 21 2019

The third edition of Oxford Primary Dictionary for East Africa is launched on May 18, 2017 at Sarova Stanley. The word “severally”, in Standard English, means “separately or individually; each in turn”. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In his Saturday Nation column, “Mark My Word”, Philip Ochieng said more than two years ago that it took him “long years of struggle” to make Kenyan journalists use the words avail and available correctly.

The two words, though related, do not mean the same thing, he said, but sub-editors use them interchangeably, which is “an embarrassing mistake that occurs almost daily”.

In the article, published on March 17, 2017, Mr Ochieng points out that newspapers tend to write “to avail” to mean “to make available” yet the semantic difference between them is “as wide as Cancer is from Capricorn”.

In fact, the tendency among Kenyan journalists to use the verb to avail instead of to make available persists to this day.

Nation reader Jeff Wachira calls attention to this aberration in a November 7, 2019 e-mail to the public editor.

“I think you should bring to the attention of your editors and writers that the word ‘avail’ does not mean ‘make available’,” he says, citing a story headlined “Avail voter list, IEBC ordered” in the previous day’s Daily Nation.



The verb “avail” means to “make use of”, “be of use” or “benefit or advantage”. So the “Avail voter list...” headline is nonsensical — unless the court is telling IEBC to make use of or take advantage of the voter list.

In his article, Mr Ochieng praises The Standard sub-editor “who finally wrote” on March 14, 2017, a page one headline: “Why State will make available HIV drugs for the healthy”.

What most sub-editors would have written, he says, is: “Why State will avail HIV drugs for the healthy.”

He says the reporter and the sub-editor used “to make available” rather than “to avail”, which, even although more common in Kenya’s newspapers, has a semantic difference. That was “the important thing”.

In spite of Mr Ochieng’s apparent success, journalists — just like other Kenyans — still use ‘avail’ as the verb form of “available”.

It’s not clear whether this aberration is a result of a poor command of the language or is what we call “Kenyan English”.


This is the language, or expressions, widely used by Kenyans that have acquired new meanings compared to Standard English.

They include words such as “bounce”, “tarmac”, “dowry”, “my names are”, “sort out (a person)” and “severally”.

To elaborate, let’s look at the word “severally”. In Standard English, it means “separately or individually; each in turn”.

But many journalists and other Kenyans use the word to mean “many times” — as in the following example taken from the Nation: “Beatrice Chemaiyo succumbed to her injuries after being stabbed severally.”

“Avail” stands out in such misuse. From September 1 to date, the Nation has used the verb as a substitute for “make available” in more than 10 stories.

Many of the uses seem to be founded on a wrong understanding of the meaning of the word.

Examples: “KCB appeals order to avail loan accounts”, “We ask for more time to avail the file”, “AATF, Syngenta partner to avail quality seeds to farmers” and “I will personally avail myself for the campaigns”.

Atichi Reginald, in his University of Nairobi 2004 master’s thesis, “The Semantic Distinctiveness of Kenyan English”, says some of the Kenyan English expressions result from a word “absorbing” senses of the meaning from another word that is close to it in form and meaning.


Giving the example of “avail”, he says the Standard International English meaning is “to make good or profitable use”, as in the sentence “I availed myself of this opportunity to improve my English”.

He says the Kenyan English meaning “is possibly traced from the similarity in form between the adjective available and the verb to avail with the latter receiving the meaning of the former”.

No doubt, Kenyan English is legitimate when it sharpens our ability to communicate.

It’s a cop-out from the rigours of good English grammar when it blunts our messages. The use of the verb “avail” to mean “make available” is such a cop-out.

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