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:

    Rinse thoroughly

    As Mark Liberman has often reminded us, when taking things from newspapers you have to be very careful about what to attribute to the person who allegedly said something and what to attribute to the journalist who reported it or the subeditor who futzed with what the journalist turned in. So when we read this in the New York Times about a Parisian hair stylist named Christophe Robin, caution is in order as we try to assign responsibility for the syntactic blunder:

    Mr. Robin, who is based in Paris, has also noticed scalp problems at his salon, but he thinks the issue is not under-shampooing but rather that women are not cleansing properly.

    "Women are in too much of a rush," he said. "You need to rinse very thoroughly the products out of your hair."

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    How wirelessly to hack

    You don't think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide ("The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it"). A leader on internet security ("Breaching-point") in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

    At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

    How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

    Nobody who hadn't been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    He comfortable! He quickly dry!

    A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

    ABOUT xxxxxxxx
    He comfortable
    He elastic
    He quickly dry
    He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
    No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
    Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
    Become your friends, Partner,
    Part of life

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    It was taking photos

    This sentence is from a report in The Guardian, a UK paper, but I suspect it was written in the USA, where the (fictive) rule that a pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent noun is often taken very seriously:

    One person was killed and five others were injured when a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while it took photographs at a southern California park on Saturday, authorities said.

    I have seldom seen a case where a noun denoting a collection of people acting jointly felt so much in need of being allowed to be the antecedent of the plural pronoun they. But under the strict syntactic rule that some people wrongly imagine they should apply, they needs a plural antecedent, and party is singular (and non-human).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (37)

    Bus sign nerdview in Sydney

    It's good to find a prominently displayed list of local bus routes that you can Find your way consult when you arrive at the train station in a big city that perhaps you do not know.

    And Sydney Central station in New South Wales, Australia, has exactly that. There is a big board headed "Find your way" at the station. But let's take a closer look at it. See if you can spot the nerdview (pointed out to me by Language Log reader Geoff Dawson).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (29)

    Mystery modal window error message

    Almost every day, when looking through the headlines on Google News, I see one or two stories where what's meant to be a snippet from the first paragraph of the story contains not a single word from the story but instead says this:

    This is a modal window. This modal can be closed by pressing the Escape key or activating the close button. Close Modal Dialog. This is a modal window.

    modalwin

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (31)

    To more than justify the split infinitive

    As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

    A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Kilometers and miles

    Sometimes the obeisance to style guides by newspaper editors and journalists looks not so much craven as robotic. The Telegraph provides an example. Like many newspapers, it has a policy of reporting distances in kilometers but appending parenthesized equivalents in miles (it's a conservative newspaper, and is not going to push its mileage-oriented readers toward metric units any time soon). Often that's useful: when it reports that The behemoth Airbus A380 … is capable of carrying 544 passengers up to 15,200km (8,200 miles), the parenthetical suffix serves to assist metrically challenged Americans and older Brits in forming an idea of what 15,200 of those little bitty European kilometer things might amount to. (At least, it would have done if it were correct, but as Bruce Lin has pointed out to me, it's wildly wrong: 15,200 km = 15200/8 * 5 = 9,500 mi. They're off by 1,300 miles. They must have meant nautical miles: 15,200 km = 8207.34 NM. That could be a life-threatening error for a jetliner running low on fuel. But never mind; who's counting.) Sometimes, though, doing such conversions is rather less useful.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    The silence of Language Log

    Our much-valued readers will all be wondering why Language Log has so far said nothing about the result of the US presidential election. That is an understandable question. Most of the newspapers seem to have managed to get out editions for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; but not us.

    The answer is that we are in the position of Jack Benny in an old, old radio comedy program long ago, in a sketch where a highwayman demands of him: Your money, or your life!

    There is no answer. So the highwayman repeats his threat: Your money, or your life!

    And the legendarily stingy protagonist cries out, "I'm thinking it over!"

    Comments off

    I am much encouraged

    At last, an animal communication story involving healthy skepticism rather than vacant-eyed credulity, and human sagacity rather than wondrous communicative brilliance by our furry, finned, or feathered friends. Read on to be reassured about the intelligence of your species.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Ultimate language threat

    The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Don't let 'bigly' catch on

    Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoon creator and diehard Trump promoter, has taken to the semi-jocular practice of adopting the mishearing of Trump's much-loved adjunct big-league, and using bigly as if it were a real adverb ("I just watched the debate on replay. Trump won bigly. This one wasn't close"). Adams is kidding, I think, but the mishearing is very common: by May 5, bigly was getting over 70,000 hits in the Google News index. I'm worried it may catch on, and we'll wake up some morning not only with the orange-quiffed sexist boor in the White House but with bigly added to the stock of adverbs in standard English.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Bob Dylan's poetry and the Nobel Prize

    A. E. STALLINGS says: "At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…"

    I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee's view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don't confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

    And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn't find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn't help.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off