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:

    Not guilty on this train

    Wenn sounds a bit like when, but doesn't really mean "when" in German; it usually means "if". Wer sounds a bit like where, but it doesn't mean "where", it means "who". Sechs sounds like sex but doesn't mean "sex". Gift looks like gift but means "poison". Nothing is easy, even when dealing with languages as closely related as English and German (the curse of Babel really was a serious curse). I was reflecting on such matters yesterday as I waited to begin my journey on a fast train from Salzburg to Munich. How easy and natural it would be to make the wrong assumption about, for example, the meaning of the adjective gültig, which I had seen on my tickets and accompanying documents. And as if on cue, I suddenly heard the beautifully-spoken announcer tell us in English over the train's PA system that tickets of a certain category "are not guilty on this train."

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    Grammar scandal at WSJ

    Misspelling prosecutor as prosector is one thing; we all make letter-omission slips occasionally. But misspelling your version as you're version in a headline in a quality newspaper? It's a whole different magnitude of editorial sin. Yet at the time of writing, The Wall Street Journal's European edition has a headline up online saying "Prosector to Oscar Pistorius: 'You're Version's a Lie'"!

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    Famous last words

    Guest post by Karen Stollznow


    In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

    We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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    The sparseness of linguistic data

    Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

    Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

    To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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    I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

    Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

    I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

    Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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    The grammar of "Abide with me"

    On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

    No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

    Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
    And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
    Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
    On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

    Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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    Taking a selfie

    In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

    "Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

    She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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    Never uttered before

    Last week a former Royal Marine who is the boyfriend of the model Kelly Brooks crashed into a bus stop while driving a van carrying a load of dead badgers.

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    Barraco Barner, UK President

    You would be wrong if you thought Language Log hadn't taken note of the beautician in Blackpool, UK, who unwisely ventured into the geopolitical realm with this tweet:

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    Phrase-hoarding

    What do the following phrases or sayings have in common?

    • first-year experience
    • fast-track MBA
    • be the difference
    • cure violence
    • student life
    • students with diabetes
    • one course at a time
    • touched by a nurse
    • we're conquering cancer
    • working toward a world without cancer
    • imagination beyond measure
    • tomorrow starts here

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    Where to keep your pubic hair

    The worst choice of preposition-phrase modifier placement anywhere in the world last week was probably the one at the E! online page. The headline read as follows:

    Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book

    Women of the world, listen to Language Log: stop keeping locks of your pubic hair pressed between the pages of Diaz's book. This whole craze is the result of a misunderstanding that should have been foreseeable. It is quite the opposite of what Ms. Diaz intended. The only fortunate thing about the incident is that it really does illustrate and underline the importance of syntax.

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    Synonymy and quotational contexts in New Jersey

    The "Say What?" feature on the Doonesbury site quotes this error correction from the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, about the misreporting of something Governor Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael Drewniak said:

    An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.'

    What do we learn from this? (Remember, this is Language Log, not New Jersey Politics Log.)

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    Whom loves ya?

    What a fool I've been, thinking all the time that the important stuff was about evidence and structure and the search for genuine syntactic principles — trying to find out through study of competent speakers' usage what are the actual principles that define (say) marking of accusative case on pronouns in Standard English. God, I've been wasting my life.

    Wired magazine has published (just in time for Valentine's Day) a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads (and let me say here that I am deeply grateful to Charles Hallinan for pointing it out to me). Much of the survey relates to the words used in the ad. For example, mentioning yoga or surfing in your ad has a positive influence on the number of contacts that will result. Some of the discoveries are curious: for men, it is much better to refer to a woman using the word "woman", but a woman's ad will do better if she refers to herself as a "girl". And (the point that has turned my life around, made on the infographic here), it turns out that men who use "whom" get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents.

    This changes everything! It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people; it's about getting more sex!

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    Sing! King! Wa! Ta!

    Sing! King! Wa! Ta! Sing! King! Wa! Ta!

    The words were being hastily shouted down a phone, with loud sounds of wind and waves in the background, and the emergency call center operator could make no sense of them. Attempts at conversing with the caller failed; he seemed not to understand English. Yet the tone was unmistakably urgent: someone was in danger of his life. But who? And where?

    About 23 people died in the event that led to that desperate, unintelligible phone call. It happed in 2004, ten years ago today. My vagueness about the number of victims is because no one who knew all the facts wanted to talk about the circumstances (the skull of one victim was only found in 2010).

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    Everything he was in he raised the quality

    According to Metro, the UK free newspaper that I pick up each morning from a stack just inside the door as I get on a double-decker bus, Steve Coogan said this about the excellent film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly was found dead with a hypodermic in his arm yesterday:

    Everything he was in he raised the quality of his film just by his presence.

    Quite so. Or at least, sort of so. If I defocus my syntactic eyes a lot, I can sort of get a glimpse of what Coogan meant.

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