Geoff Pullum

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

Geoff Pullum has been professor of general linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh since 2007. He was also Gerard Visiting Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University in 2012–2013. 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 (old posts listed here, newer ones here), and in 2006 he published, jointly with Mark Liberman, a collection of Language Log posts under the title Far From the Madding Gerund. He also writes for Lingua Franca every week (posts listed here). You can email him: he's got a Gmail account, and his login name is his surname. But don't tell any spam robots that.

Posts by Geoff Pullum:

    Utterly lost in translation

    During a search for something else, I happened upon this page at the Bible Study Tools site. It provides a nice reminder (for the two or three people out there who might still need it) of the fact that it's dangerous to trust websites, in linguistic matters or in anything else. As the screenshot shows, it purports to show Psalm 86 in two parallel versions, the Latin Vulgate and the New International Version.

    "Filiis Core psalmis cantici fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis" is translated as "Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy." The correct translation is debatable, but the first four words mean "A song psalm for the sons of Korah", and the rest means either "Its foundations are in the sacred hills" or (according to the Revised Standard Version) "On the holy mount stands the city he founded." Verse 2, "Diligit dominus portas Sion super omnia tabernacula Iacob" (roughly, "The Lord loves the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob") is translated as "Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God." The third verse begins Gloriosa dicta sunt ("glorious things are spoken") but is translated as "have mercy on me". This is worse than the worst botch I ever saw from Google Translate. And I suspect human error is to blame.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    They call the wind 'Maria'?

    I hope you appreciate the wisdom of the new policy on naming hurricanes that was announced here on September 11. The latest brutal storm to devastate the islands of the eastern Caribbean would not have been named for the mother of Jesus; it would have been named "Hurricane Malaria." That's more like it. Nasty names for nasty stuff. You know it makes sense.

    Comments off

    It's in the was

    The marvellous New Zealand-born opera soprano Kiri Te Kanawa announced that she has now retired from performance. Talking to the BBC about it this morning, she said of her voice: "It's in the was."

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Hurricane naming policy change

    I think it's becoming clear that alternating male and female personal names to individuate Atlantic tropical cyclones is not a good idea. These storms are becoming far too nasty. Calling a storm "Harvey" makes it sound like your friendly uncle who always comes over on the Fourth of July and flirts with your mom. And "Irma" sounds like a dancer that he once knew when he was in Berlin. Science tells us that these devastating meteorological events are probably going to get worse in coming years. (Ann Coulter says that as a potential cause of increased violence in hurricanes, climate change is less plausible than God's anger at Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor; but let's face it, Ann Coulter is a few bricks short of a full intellectual hod.) Hurricanes need uglier names. You can't get Miami to evacuate by telling people that "Irma" is coming.

    Accordingly, next year the National Hurricane Center is planning to name tropical cyclonic storms and hurricanes after unpleasant diseases and medical conditions. Think about it. The state governor tells you a hurricane named Dracunculiasis is coming down on you, you're gonna start packing the station wagon. So as the season progresses, the following will be the named storms in 2018.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Peripheral control nerdview

    In various areas of Edinburgh there are signs that say "Peripheral Controlled Zone." What exactly would you do if you encountered one of these signs? What would it mean to you? Not much? That's the hallmark of nerdview.

    What is peripheral to what? Who is controlling what? What is peripheral control? Why are you being told this? Nothing becomes clearer as you mull over what it says. They might as well have put up a sign saying "Argle bargle nurff gugga mongmong gooboo wah Mon – Fri 8:30am – 5:30pm."

    But worse, if you did know what it meant you would become aware that it could not possibly be relevant to you.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    He lapsed into the passive voice

    Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

    On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

    "It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

    This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

    Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Asses and asterisks

    When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

    British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

    What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Neglected email

    Some charmingly reflective and sincere writing in the latest xkcd comic as Cueball types a reply to a long-neglected email correspondent:

    Dear Kevin,
    I'm sorry it's taken me two years to reply to your email. I've built up so much stress and anxiety around my email inbox; it's an unhealthy dynamic which is more psychological than technical. I've tried one magical solution after another, and as each one has failed, deep down I've grown more certain that the problem isn't email – it's me.

    Regardless, these are my issues, not yours; you're my friend, and I owe you the basic courtesy of a response. I apologize for my neglect, and I hope you haven't been too hurt by my failure to reply.

    Anyway, I appreciate your invitation to join your professional network on LinkedIn, but I'm afraid I must decline…

    The mouseover alt text says: "I would be honored, but I know I don't belong in your network. The person you invited was someone who had not yet inflicted this two-year ordeal upon you. I'm no longer that person."

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Are good!

    This is a picture of the wording on an Italian-made baby jacket, a gift to the granddaughter of a friend of a friend after the child was baptised recently in Florence, Italy. Your guess at the intended meaning is as good as mine.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Literally bigger than the phone book

    The Edinburgh Festival season has begun. There are more than half a dozen independently run and temporally overlapping festivals, depending on what you want to count. But the biggest of all of them is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the entire world (I admitted in a Lingua Franca post to my love of the lowbrow humor of the comedy shows). I've often told people that the catalog of shows is bigger than the phone book for an average city — a claim that will be uninterpretable to many, since most of us hardly ever see telephone directories now. But I would hate for you to think that I spoke loosely. Let's get quantitative. Edinburgh does still have a phone book, published by BT (formerly British Telecom). It covers not just the city of Edinburgh but the whole Lothian county in which it sits. And the new edition just arrived. So I have the Edinburgh and Lothian phone book on the table before me, beside the Edinburgh Festival Fringe catalog. I have compared them. I have numbers.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Scary good and scary bright

    Victor Mair published a post yesterday under the title "Google is scary good", and reader Philip Taylor commented:

    "Scary good" reads very oddly to me; would not "scarily" be more customary in such a context ?

    The answer is that there are quite a few adjectives (or, perhaps one should say, adverbs homophonous with their related adjectives) that occur as modifiers of other adjectives in standard English: dead tired, cold sober, blind drunk, and plenty of others (the topic is briefly discussed by Payne, Huddleston and Pullum in this lengthy 2010 paper).

    In the particular case of scary, I remember when I first heard it as a modifier, some 40 years ago, from a British linguist in Massachusetts (she had moved to America to do her PhD and never went back). She described another linguist, who at the time I had not met, as "scary bright". It registered permanently with me — one-trial learning of the construction — and I never again found it odd to hear scary as a modifier in an adjective phrase. And I never forgot the characterization.

    I will now reveal who uttered the phrase, and which linguist she was describing. If you feel this is improper, or wouldn't want to know, or think candid remarks made in private by people other than Anthony Scaramucci should never be quoted in a public setting, or wouldn't like to discover that it was not who you think it was, then all I can suggest is that you resist the temptation to click on Read the rest of this entry. Just be strong: don't read on. Eschew gossiping and leaking. Preserve the privacy and anonymity of both linguists.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Tory uses N-word… not

    "Tory MP suspended for racist remark" says the Financial Times headline, just two hours ago as I write this. A Conservative member of parliament suspended from the party within hours after being recorded making a racist remark in a public meeting! A remark involving "the N-word", too! As an anti-racist with no love for the Tories, I was eager to find out the details of this latest embarrassment. But in seconds after I turned to the first newspaper account I realized I was in for a disappointment. It turns out to be fake news. Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Becoming an adjective

    A friend points out to me that according to this Abe Books description of a hardback copy of Jane Jacobs' classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the back cover it is reported that Toronto Life made the following assertion:

    Jane Jacobs has become more than a person. She is an adjective.

    If you care to read on, I will do my best to explain the meaning of this comment.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off