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:

    Just press Pay

    This is a screen shot I snapped during a recent attempt to purchase something (can't remember what) on the web:

    Notice that in order to continue, it tells me (twice) that I have to press "Pay". Can you see any button labeled "Pay" on the screen?

    If you are itching to tell me what I should have done, you are missing my point.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    From 'a terrible' to 'the latest'

    It's the saddest thing I have seen in many months of sad news: The front page of the Metro, a free newspaper given away on the buses in Britain, said "At least 27 people were killed during a morning church service in the latest US shooting massacre."

    "The latest"! They're now so routine that the Metro has switched from indefinite to definite article. It's not "a terrible shooting massacre in the US" anymore, it's just "the latest US shooting massacre." Everyone knows there will be more. This one was merely the latest. The governor's prayers are with the people of Sutherland Springs; the president sends word from Japan that it wasn't about guns, it was about mental illness. See page 4 for the Queen's investment in offshore tax havens, page 6 for the governing party Member of Parliament who puts his hand up women's skirts in elevators.

    Comments off

    Semantics at the Supreme Court

    “What is the difference between ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘substantial need’?” asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see this story in the New York Times). “I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can’t think of an example.”

    Several of the court’s more liberal justices disagreed, saying that “reasonably necessary” connoted matters that a reasonable lawyer with finite resources would try to pursue.

    On the outcome there hangs the issue of whether death row inmates like Carlos Manuel Ayestas in Texas will get legal aid. A federal appeals court in New Orleans, which oversees cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, says there must a “substantial need” for the money, and denied funds to Ayestas. He challenged the denial.

    So don't ever say there is no practical importance to the work semanticists do as they try to identify truth-conditional differences between terms of broadly similar meaning.

    Comments off

    World domination and threats to the public

    Linguistics is in the most desirable quadrant according to today's xkcd: low likelihood of being a crucial tool for a supervillain, and low probability of anything breaking out of the research environment and threatening the general population.

    But I'm not at all sure that everything is positioned correctly. Molasses storage should be further to the right (never forget the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919); dentistry should be moved up (remember Marathon Man); robotics in its current state is too highly ranked on both axes; and entomology, right now (October 18, 2017), in addition to being slightly too low, is spelled wrong. Lots to quibble about, I'd say. But not the standing of linguistics as a safe thing to work on.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Help our spam journal to a healthy grow

    I continue to be astonished by the sheer volume of the junk email I get from spam journals and organizers of spamferences, and by the linguistic ineptitude of the unprincipled responsible parties. I have been getting dozens per month, for a year or more: journal announcements, calls for papers, requests for conference attendance, subscription information, and invitations to editorial boards. Today I got a prestige invitation that began thus:

    After careful evaluation and reading your article published in Journal of Logic, Language and Information entitled “On the Mathematical Foundations of", we decided to send you this invitation.

    Clearly the careful evaluation and reading did not enable them to get to the end of my title (it does not end in of). And what was the invitation?

    In light of your remarkable achievements in Critical Care, we would like to invite you to join the Editorial Board of Journal of Nursing.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    Terror of singular 'they'

    Joining a crowd of other recent fraudsters, Paul Roberts and Deborah Briton returned from their Spanish vacation and subsequently turned in a completely fake claim against the Thomas Cook package-vacation company, alleging that their time in Spain had been ruined by stomach complaints for which the hotel and the company should be held liable. They sought more than $25,000 in damages for the fictional malady. The judge sentenced them to jail. And in this report of the case my colleague Bob Ladd noticed that Sam Brown, the prosecuting attorney, showed himself to be so terrified of blundering into a singular they that he would not even risk using they with plural reference, preferring to utter a totally ungrammatical sentence:

    *Sam Brown, prosecuting, said: "Both defendants knew that in issuing this claim he or she would be lying in order to support it."

    Beware of struggling to obey prescriptive injunctions that don't come naturally to you; they can warp your ability to use your native language sensibly.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    The less… umm… fewer the better

    Someone with a knowledge of usage controversies, German language, and modern political history put this on the web somewhere; I haven't been able to find out who or where:

    [Hat tip: Rowan Mackay]

    Comments off

    British understatement of the week

    According to HuffPost UK, although figures from the Office of National Statistics indicate that the LGB percentage of the population rose last year by a statistically significant amount, "the majority of the UK population still identifies as heterosexual or straight."

    Phew! So the straights (unlike the current Conservative-led government) held on to their majority. Good. I was bracing for a wave of homophobe fury. But let's take a look at the numbers to see how close a call it was, shall we?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    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