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:

    "Elsewhere": electronic alibis

    American readers may not yet have heard the recent story about the chairman of the Conservative Party in Britain, Grant Shapps MP. He has been accused of sock-puppetry: editing his own Wikipedia page to remove unfavorable references to his business life (and editing the pages about other Conservative MPs to highlight unfavorable aspects of their lives). And his response was to say that he couldn't possibly have done it, because: "A simple look in my diary shows I was elsewhere."

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    Cavemen and postmen and explanation

    For those who were interested in Mark's post on the curious question of when the -man suffix gets a reduced vowel (woman, fireman, madman, milkman, gunman, batman, Batman, caveman, postman, weatherman, etc.), and especially for those who commented on it, Ben Yagoda has now written insightfully on the topic over at Lingua Franca.

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    A succor born every minute

    Great news (if you're a pompous idiot)! There is news from the UK's Daily Mail of an app that will ruin your SMS messages and make you sound like someone who went through a matter transporter with a thesaurus!

    So in case you should want to completely wreck your chances of ever getting another date with anyone normal, the Mail's screenshots show that the app will replace "Hey!" in your texts by "Salutations!"; it will replace "help me with my homework" by "succor me with my homework"; "smart girl" will be changed to "luminous girl"; "meet at my place" will become "meet at my residence"; "sounds good" will come out as "sounds euphonic"; and "have a good time" will morph into "have a congenial time".

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    Awful book, so I bought it

    A long time ago (it was 2010, but so much has happened since then) I noted here that Greg Mankiw recommended to his Harvard economics students not just the little book I hate so much (The Elements of Style), but also William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. About the latter, I said this:

    I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.

    Well, last Thursday, as I browsed the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (I'm on the eastern seaboard in order to give a lecture at Princeton on Monday), I spotted that a copy of the 30th anniversary edition of Zinsser was on sale at the bargain price of $8.98. Should I buy it? I flipped it open by chance at page 67: "Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb…" Uh-oh! More passivophobia. I've definitely got a professional interest in hatred of passives.

    I turned the page and saw "ADVERBS. Most adverbs are unnecessary" and "ADJECTIVES. Most adjectives are also unnecessary." Of course! I remember now that I tried to skewer this nonsense in "Those who take the adjectives from the table", commenting on a quotation from Zinsser in a book by Ben Yagoda. Zinsser only uses five words to say "Most adjectives are also unnecessary," but one of them (unnecessary) is an adjective, and another (also) is an adverb.

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    Autocomplete strikes again

    I think I know how an unsuitable but immensely rich desert peninsula got chosen by FIFA (the international governing body for major soccer tournaments) to host the soccer World Cup in 2022.

    First, a personal anecdote that triggered my hypothesis about the decision. I recently sent a text message from my smartphone and then carelessly slipped it into my pocket without making sure it had gone to sleep.

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    Bad advice on being a good writer

    Part 2 of the Wikihow listicle "Be a Good Writer" is about learning vital skills, and item 3 of part 2 says you should "Learn the rules of grammar". Where should you turn to find out what they are? The article (as accessed on March 2, 2015) says:

    If you have a question about grammar, refer to a grammar book, such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White or The American Heritage Book of English Usage.

    And the link attached to the title The Elements of Style is to an online reproduction of the text of the original 1918 edition of Strunk's dreadful little book of drivel.

    O God, grant me thy precious gift of patience… and I need it right now.

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    Fake account spotting on Facebook

    One language-related story in the British press over the weekend was that Gavin McGowan was threatened by Facebook with having his account shut down… because they said his name was fake.

    About ten years ago Gavin learned some Scottish Gaelic and started using the Gaelic spelling of his name: Gabhan Mac A Ghobhainn. Facebook is apparently running software designed to spot bogus accounts on the basis of the letter-strings used to name them. Gabhan's name evidently failed the test.

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    Getting your book depublished

    Two comments on the strange business of how we academics work for almost nothing doing our academic writing, and even do our own typesetting, and get our colleagues to do unpaid editing and quality reviewing of what we have written, so that publishers who have contributed almost no value added can then charge you readers huge sums of money for looking at the finished product. First, Stefan Müller in the preface to a new book he has just published in draft through the open-access organization Language Science Press (the emphasis in this quote is mine):

    I started to work on my dissertation in 1994 and defended it in 1997. During the whole time the manuscript was available on my web page. After the defense I had to look for a publisher. I was quite happy to be accepted in the series Linguistische Arbeiten by Niemeyer, but at the same time I was shocked about the price, which was 186,00 DM for a paper back book that was written and typeset by me without any help by the publisher (twenty times the price of a paperback novel). This basically meant that my book was depublished: until 1998 it was available from my web page and after this it was available in libraries only.

    The other comment you can see in its original habitat on Twitter at "Shit Academics Say":

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    Linguists get tough on promoting language change

    The latest xkcd, at http://xkcd.com/1483/:

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    Reflections on "Inherent Vice"

    Last night I went out to see Inherent Vice, the only film so far made of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two and a half hours of bafflement later, the credits rolled. I was with two distinguished computational linguists, Mark Steedman and Bonnie Webber. "It was more coherent than the book," said Mark, who liked the film. Bonnie and I weren't so sure. Today there was a lot of talk in the British media about how people have been walking out without staying to the end (Owen Jones says he actually lost the will to live). I have only seen one movie in many years that was so bad that I walked out, and my will to live was undiminished by Inherent Vice; but I needed to go home and read the Wikipedia plot summary to make sure I had grasped something of what was going on. ("This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed," says a note at the top by an unidentified Wikipedian. Yes! It is, and I'm very grateful. Please don't try to "help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise." I need it just the way it is.)

    The language angle on this, I hear you ask? I don't just post film reviews here in order to ensure that the cost of my cinema tickets can be charged to Language Log's corporate American Express card as a business expense. Oh, no. There's always a linguistic hook.

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    The manuscript they would have written

    Here's a very nice case of modern sex-neutral pronoun-choice style, with the unusual feature that the antecedent for the two occurrences of singular they (which prescriptivsts hate so much) is not only a definite noun phrase, but a definite noun phrase denoting a unique individual. The sentence comes from a Buzzfeed listicle drawn from "Shit Academics Say" (@AcademicsSay) on Twitter. I underline the antecedent and the two pronouns:

    We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written.

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    If Scotland win

    Outside a pub near my office in Edinburgh on the day of an important soccer fixture between Germany and Scotland there was a sign saying: "Free pint if Scotland win!"

    Those with an eye for syntax will focus like a laser beam on the last letter of the last word. Should that have been "if Scotland wins"?

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    Error-laden phishing attempts

    Phishers trawling for email account names are generally smart enough to pull all sorts of programming tricks, forging headers and obtaining lists of spammable addresses and setting up arrangements to capture login names and passwords obediently typed in by the gullible; but then they give themselves away with errors of grammar and punctuation that are just too gross to be perpetrated by the authorized guys at the communications and technology services unit.

    I received a phishing spam today that had no To-line at all (none of that "undisclosed recipients" stuff, and no mention of my email address in it anywhere). It looked sort of convincing in its announcement that webmail account holders would have to take certain steps to ensure the preservation of their address books after being "upgraded to a new enhanced Outlook interface". (My own university has, tragically, been induced to do an upgrade of this kind to its employee email services.) But the linguistic errors in the message begin with the 13th character in the From line (that second comma is wrong). I reproduce below the raw text of what I received, stripping out only the locally generated receipt and spam-checking headers (and by the way, this message—spam though it is—succeeded in getting a spam score of 0).

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