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:

    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.

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    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.

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    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."

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Death by french fries

    The Daily Telegraph did not do much for its reputation, at least in my eyes, when it confused the defense with the prosecution after a celebrity sexual assault mistrial. Nor when it recently consulted me about whether there were grammar mistakes on a banknote, learned that there clearly were not, but went ahead and published the claim that there were anyway. Now for a sample of the Telegraph's science reporting, written by Adam Boult, who I suspect didn't complete his statistics course:

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    Defense counsel for the victim?

    A truly Freudian slip in a story in the UK conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph, speaking volumes about what goes wrong with so many rape and sexual assault prosecutions:

    Camille Cosby, wife of the entertainer, issued a statement, read out by an associate on the court steps in a dramatically-delivered speech.

    She attacked the judge as biased, and said the defence were "totally unethical."

    The defense? Andrea Constand and the other brave women who have accused Bill Cosby (they say he drugged them so he could enjoy sexual gratification without their consent) were not in the dock, and the lawyers arguing their case were not the defense team, but the prosecutors. The Telegraph journalist, Harriet Alexander, has apparently reversed the roles of the accused's defense and the district attorney.

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    How swift we misoverestimate

    How swift we forget echoes in my head as a familiar cliché, a precomposed adaptable drop-in phrase rather like a snowclone but without customizable parts. I thought it might even be a quotation from some famous source. When I happened to Google-search it today, I was expecting to see millions of hits. Instead there was exactly one, in an utterly obscure short comment on the HeroClix discussion forum. This astonished me. I figured all the millions of others must correct swift to its adverb form swiftly. So I repeated the search on How swiftly we forget. And I was astonished again. Just 26 hits, with some repetitions and duplicates so similar that Google didn't want to show them. Only 70 hits even if you force the display of the duplicates. Given the size of the web today, that should be regarded as approximately zero.

    I mention this only because it reminds me that while we all have vague impressions of how often we hear or read something, vast numbers of those impressions are probably wrong (especially when we imagine we have been hearing something more often recently). And it seems to me that this must have some sort of relevance for the cognitive scientists who believe language learning is based on subliminal perceptions of the frequency of encountered word sequences. Though my feeling that it must have some sort of relevance is probably wrong too. It is a mysterious business, language. (Just ignore me. I'm merely ruminating in public. I shouldn't. I'm just wasting your time. Please go on with whatever you were doing.)

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    Four candles for Ronnie Corbett

    Ronnie Corbett died on March 31, 2016, a year after his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig's disease. A long-planned memorial service for him was held a couple of days ago in Westminster Abbey. That's an honor reserved for only the most important figures in British life. At the front of the church during the service was the famous armchair in which he always sat to do his featured monologue (generally a ridiculous shaggy-dog-story joke with many digressions) during the TV show he did with Ronnie Barker, called The Two Ronnies. And just as at his funeral more than a year ago, four candles were displayed along with the chair. It was an allusion to the truly legendary sketch in which Corbett and Barker riffed on almost-indistinguishable phonetic strings in working-class vernacular Southern British English — pairs like four candlesfork handles. In the unlikely event you've never watched it (it's been mentioned on Language Log a few times, of course, especially by commenters), watch it now, and remember one of the finest of British comedians — perhaps the most loved of them all.

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    Study the linguistics of Game of Thrones

    At the instant of posting this, there are only 18 places remaining out of the 40 maximum in Linguistics 183 001, David Peterson's summer session course at UC Berkeley on "The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention." 3 to 5 p.m., Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu, May 22 to June 30.

    It's not a 'Structure of Dothraki' course; it's about how you go about inventing languages (Peterson has done this for film and TV several times, and has been paid money for it).

    Hurry to sign up. And don't ever let me hear you saying that linguistics doesn't provide fun things to do.

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