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:

    Cutesy hairdresser names

    I've heard it said that among the retail establishments most addicted to cutesy punning business names are hairdressing salons. I mean, you don't find law practices called Law 'n' Order to Go, do you? Or a hardware store called Get Hard? Or a butcher's called Meat and Greet? But with hairdressers… Well, I don't know all that many myself; just about 150 or so that I've personally seen the signs for…

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    The extent of Melania's plagiarism

    The Trump campaign officially maintains that there was no plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech at the Republican convention. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort was astonishingly disingenuous: "These were common words and values"; "To think that she'd be cribbing Michelle Obama's words is crazy"; "There's no cribbing. What she did was use words that are common words"; "Care and respect and passion, those are not extraordinary words"; "50 words, and that includes and’s and the’s and things like that." But it is not words we are talking about, is it? It's word sequences. And you do not need to look at many word sequences, even quite short ones, before you start finding phrases that have apparently never occurred before in the entire history of the world (if we can judge by the sample of it that the web knows about).

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    More bovine excrement to rebut

    Recently someone who runs some sort of online discussion forum wrote to ask me about the accuracy (or otherwise) of two bipartite claims. One said that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness" and that "This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and the other said that in non-literate cultures "people have more verbs in their language" while we English speakers "have more nouns," and that "Our language [= English] is actor centered and their language is action centered."

    I feel I have to make an effort to aid the benighted, so I responded to this cry for help. I made a few false starts on drafts containing phrases like "utter raving nutball" and "toxic, festering, postmodernist bullshit," which I then erased, and finally I settled down to write a kinder, gentler response. I didn't manage brilliantly — what I wrote won't win any prizes at a kindness-and-gentleness show, if they have such things — but I reined myself in a little (not voicing my suspicion that the writer's brain had been poisoned by reading Derrida, for example, because I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive), and what I wrote back was as follows.

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    Humor among the Finns

    According to The Economist (July 9, 2016, "Just visiting" [p.30 in UK edition]), a joke was "making the rounds" in Finland back in 2008 when Russia invaded part of Georgia (and Finns aren't laughing at it quite so much since the Ukraine conflict flared up):

    Vladimir Putin lands at Helsinki airport and proceeds to passport control. "Name?" asks the border guard. "Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," answers the Russian president. "Occupation?" asks the border guard. "No, just visiting," answers Mr Putin.

    But wait a minute, I thought: that relies on a pun. In English the word for a militarily backed presence and control of governmental functions imposed by one state on the territory of another happens to be identical with one of the words for a person's regular paying job or profession. Are the two also, by pure accident, identical in Finnish (a non-Indo-European language)? That somehow feels implausible to me.

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    McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

    The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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    Post Office nerdview (capped)

    Postal orders are a way for people in Britain to send money by post without having a checking account, but there is a fee, dependent on the face value of the order. For a postal order with a face value of more than £100 the fee is shown on the Post Office web page as "Capped at £12.50", which puzzled Matt Keefe. He wrote to me to ask if it was an instance of nerdview. Absolutely; that's exactly what it is.

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    Systematic wanting

    Says Bagehot, the pseudonym-cloaked correspondent of The Economist who writes a page of comment on British affairs every week (25 June 2016, p. 27 in Brexit-delayed UK edition; not present in the US edition dated June 25):

    As early as January a top Brexiteer freely admitted to Bagehot that his campaign planned to turn the public against its leaders; it wanted systematically to delegitimise Britain's pro-EU political, bureaucratic and business elites.

    Is that the first time you've heard anyone talking about systematic wanting? It's a first for me. But of course The Economist is just sticking to its dreadful policy of syntactic self-harm, by mechanically moving adverbs to the left so that they don't follow to in an infinitival complement.

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    FORM TWO LANES

    Driving back from the airport last night in unusually heavy traffic I came to a sign that said "FORM TWO LANES".

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    A meal of little shovels

    At an excellent restaurant in Leipzig last night the server quickly identified me as an Auslander whose German might not be up to grasping every nuance of the menu, so I was given an English menu as well. (It was a bit humiliating, like having a bib tied round my neck. I have tried to explain elsewhere why my knowledge of German is so shamefully thin and undeveloped despite my having once spent 18 months living in the country.) On the English menu was a dish at which I raised a native-speaking eyebrow: Frankish little shovels, it said. And since there is no limit to my dedication as a linguistic scientist, I ordered the dish just to see what these little shovels were like.

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    Start by logging on to this computer

    Nerdview enthusiasts: My colleague Mits Ota pointed out to me today that the helpful instructions in a recording studio at the University of Edinburgh, which are presented as the wallpaper screen background on the Macintosh computer through which you control the recording equipment, state that the first thing you have to do to get started is to log on to the Mac, for which you will need to know that the login name to use is 'studio' and the password is also 'studio'. You see why Mits brought the example to my attention?

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    Don't be awkward

    Mark Liberman's discussion of an absurd modifier placement rule in the Associated Press Style Book reminded me of an ancient and not particularly funny joke that, the way I first heard it, is based on an offensive stereotype of gay men. I was going to explain on the Chronicle of Higher Education's language blog Lingua Franca a couple of months ago, but to my surprise I was forbidden to do so. The Chronicle lives in abject terror of offending gays or blacks or women or Asians or prudes or any other identifiable section of its readership that might take offense at something (and they may be right to be afraid: this week I was accused of ageism by a commenter for using the phrase "between 60 and 70 years old" as part of a description of an imaginary person). I'll tell you here on Language Log what I was going to say, and you can decide.

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    Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

    Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

    Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

    You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

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    The love organ of many names

    British comedian Richard Herring is the author of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

    In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

    [Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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