Geoff Pullum

Website: http://ling.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/index.html

Geoff Pullum is professor of general linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, and also Gerard Visiting Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, RI. (How does he manage the commute? He gets up very early.) Perhaps best known as co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he has many other linguistic interests besides (full publications list here). He has been writing for Language Log since its foundation in 2003, and in 2006 he published, jointly with Mark Liberman, a collection of Language Log posts under the title Far From the Madding Gerund. You can email him: he's got a Gmail account. His login name is his surname. (Don't tell any spam robots.)

Posts by Geoff Pullum:

    Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

    Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! What's going on? Is Language Log beginning to break through? Are journalists waking up to the fact that there actually is a definition of the notion 'passive voice' (though hardly anybody seems to know what it is)? The article is by Tristin Hopper of the National Post in Canada (August 8, 2014); you can read it here. Kudos to Tristin.

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    No dawn for ape-language theory

    As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

    I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

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    The state of the machine translation art

    I don't know any Hebrew. So when I recently saw a comment in Hebrew on a Google Plus page of discussion about Gaza tunnel-building that I was looking at, I clicked (with some forebodings) on the "Translate" link to see what it meant. What I got was this:

    Some grazing has hurt they Stands citizens Susan Hammer year

    This does not even offer enough of an inkling to permit me to guess at what the writer of the original Hebrew might have been saying. It might as well have said "Grill tree ecumenical the fox Shove sample Quentin Garage plastic."

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    Honesty about leadership

    The Dilbert strip continues to make me laugh out loud almost every morning. If you missed the day when the boss asked Dilbert for an "honest assessment" of his leadership, go back to it and catch up. Dilbert's 30-minute response to this invitation ended with the words "like being stabbed by an angry clown while drowning in a septic tank." Simile of the week, for sure. I wonder if anyone told Microsoft's Satya Nadella anything similar in the past few days.

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    Because come on

    Philip Bump's article about the initiative aimed at splitting Caifornia into six new states contains a cute example of a new playful extension of the use of because:

    Happily, in this instance the federal government would have to sign off on the idea, which it will never do, because, come on.

    It's not a real extension of the syntax that allows because to take imperative clause complements, of course; it's just a humorous way to dismiss the idea of federal approval, taking its structure from the kind of changes of plan that happen in casual talk. Here the plan for a preposition phrase with because is just abandoned, and the idiomatic "come on" injunction to get real is substituted. But it works very nicely.

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    Officer-involved passives

    Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

    So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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    Usage masochism

    I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

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    Bonfire beneficiaries

    Subeditor Humphrey Evans points out to me that the grammar of phishing spam emails is getting worse and worse, rather than better. He recently saw one that contained this text:

    The sum of (6.5M Euros only will be transfer into your account after the processing of all relevant legal documents with your name as the bonfire beneficiary, the transfer will be made by Draft or telegraphic Transfer (T/T), conformable in 3 working days as soon as you apply to the bank director.

    That "bonfire beneficiary" bit is an eyebrow-raiser, isn't it? It seems to be an error for the Latin phrase bona fide "good faith".

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    Territorial rights for languages

    I had been waiting for the world's media to notice the extraordinarily anomalous character of Vladimir Putin's notion that he can annex pieces of land simply because speakers of the Russian language live there and are feeling aggrieved or imperilled. And now The Economist has done the job very nicely. See this page for an article about what the world map would look like under a generalization of Putin's doctrine.

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    Gaps inside adjunct phrases

    Linguists have often assumed that the principles of English syntax do not allow a dependency between the head noun and the "gap" in a relative clause to span the boundaries of an adjunct such as a conditional if phrase. They will invent pairs of this sort to illustrate the ungrammatical results:

    1. I'm working with a man that I think you would absolutely hate.
    2. *I'm working with a man that if you saw you would throw up.

    In the first, the meaning of the relative clause is "I think you would absolutely hate him", and syntactically there is a gap where the object of hate (underlined) would have been. But in the second, the meaning of the relative clause is if you saw him you would throw up, and the underlined pronoun is inside the conditional adjunct if you saw [him]. Having the gap inside the adjunct is not permitted, they say.

    And they mean that descriptively: the claim is not that you ought to avoid sentences like 2 above; the claim is that all speakers have a natural instinctive aversion to syntactic structures of this sort.

    But is that true?

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    Not guilty on this train

    Wenn sounds a bit like when, but doesn't really mean "when" in German; it usually means "if". Wer sounds a bit like where, but it doesn't mean "where", it means "who". Sechs sounds like sex but doesn't mean "sex". Gift looks like gift but means "poison". Nothing is easy, even when dealing with languages as closely related as English and German (the curse of Babel really was a serious curse). I was reflecting on such matters yesterday as I waited to begin my journey on a fast train from Salzburg to Munich. How easy and natural it would be to make the wrong assumption about, for example, the meaning of the adjective gültig, which I had seen on my tickets and accompanying documents. And as if on cue, I suddenly heard the beautifully-spoken announcer tell us in English over the train's PA system that tickets of a certain category "are not guilty on this train."

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    Grammar scandal at WSJ

    Misspelling prosecutor as prosector is one thing; we all make letter-omission slips occasionally. But misspelling your version as you're version in a headline in a quality newspaper? It's a whole different magnitude of editorial sin. Yet at the time of writing, The Wall Street Journal's European edition has a headline up online saying "Prosector to Oscar Pistorius: 'You're Version's a Lie'"!

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    Famous last words

    Guest post by Karen Stollznow


    In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

    We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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    The sparseness of linguistic data

    Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

    Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

    To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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    I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

    Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

    I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

    Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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