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:

    The Festival are clear

    One of the rare syntactic dialect differences between British and American English (there really aren't many) concerns verb agreement in present-tense clauses: British English strongly favors plural agreement with any singular subject noun phrase that denotes a collectivity of individuals rather than a unitary individual. And the extent to which it favors that plural agreement is likely to raise eyebrows with speakers of American English. This example, for example, from an email about a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

    The Festival are very clear that if you arrive after the start of the lecture you will not be admitted.

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    Internecine strife at Language Log?

    Are we seeing the first signs of discord at Language Log Plaza? Mark Liberman seems to be flatly rebutting Geoff Pullum's "no structure at all" remark about what he calls "Trump's aphasia." Mark maintains that Trump's speaking style is no different in kind from any other human's spontaneous speech, even crediting him with "eloquence." Geoff, by contrast, seems to regard Trump as barely capable of expressing himself in human language. This looks like the beginnings of a proper scholarly punch-up. Is Liberman pro-Trump and Pullum anti? Have Mark and Geoff fallen out?

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    The Second Amendment people

    The controversial words about the Second Amendment that Donald Trump uttered at a rally in North Carolina yesterday are as follows:

    Hillary wants to abolish
    — essentially abolish —
    the Second Amendment.
    By the way,
    if she gets to pick her judges… [long pause]
    Nothing you can do, folks. [long pause]
    Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.

    Trump defenders are denying that this was an oblique encouragement to gun-possessing supporters to shoot Mrs Clinton. His own defense is that he was suggesting people should go to the polls and vote. Utter bullshit. This is perhaps Trump's most outrageous remark yet. He couldn't have blown the dog whistle much louder without being in danger of arrest for encouraging violence.

    The three key linguistic points are (1) the reference of the noun phrase "the Second Amendment people", (2) the meaning of the modal adjunct "maybe", and (3) the function of the "I don't know" on the end.

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    Never not stop… uhh… Come again?

    One of the shows in the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe, by the three-man Australian musical comedy ensemble The Axis of Awesome, is called "Won't Ever Not Stop Giving Up."

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    The sounds of Eurasia

    A concert entitled "Sounds of Eurasia", held in a church, by a youth orchestra I'd never heard of from somewhere in the -stans region of Central Asia, admission being free and unticketed. It didn't sound too great. But I saw a flyer for it at local shopping center on Saturday, and the event was scheduled for that very evening. I showed the flyer to my friend Carol and we decided (since we could hardly complain about the price) that we would be adventurous and risk it. I wasn't confident; I stressed that in the worst-case scenario we might be in for a a slow and painful lesson teaching us only that Central Asian music was a cacophony of strange whiny-sounding horns and out-of-tune one-stringed bowed instruments and was not for us. "Doesn't matter; you can stand almost anything for an hour or so," she said, gamely insisting we should go.

    Boy, did we ever misunderestimate. The Youth Chamber Orchestra of TÜRKSOY is stunningly good. It was an amazing evening.

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    Spamferences thrive; junk journals prosper

    I was recently moved (screaming and struggling, as four strong men held me down by my arms and legs) to a new web-based university email system designed and run by Microsoft: Office 365. Naturally, it's ill-designed slow-loading crap, burdened by misfeatures and pointless pop-ups that I do not want popping up, and it fails to allow various elementary operations that I often need (every upgrade is a downgrade). But that is not my topic today. I want to note one special sad consequence of moving to an entirely new system: all my previous email system's Bayesian machine learning about spam classification has been lost. The Office 365 system has had hardly any data to learn from as yet, so I am seeing some of the stuff that would have been coming to me all along if it had not been caught by machine learning and dumped in the spam bin. And what has truly amazed me is the daily flow of advertising for spamferences and junk journals.

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    Cutesy hairdresser names

    I've heard it said that among the retail establishments most addicted to cutesy punning business names are hairdressing salons. I mean, you don't find law practices called Law 'n' Order to Go, do you? Or a hardware store called Get Hard? Or a butcher's called Meat and Greet? But with hairdressers… Well, I don't know all that many myself; just about 150 or so that I've personally seen the signs for…

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    The extent of Melania's plagiarism

    The Trump campaign officially maintains that there was no plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech at the Republican convention. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort was astonishingly disingenuous: "These were common words and values"; "To think that she'd be cribbing Michelle Obama's words is crazy"; "There's no cribbing. What she did was use words that are common words"; "Care and respect and passion, those are not extraordinary words"; "50 words, and that includes and’s and the’s and things like that." But it is not words we are talking about, is it? It's word sequences. And you do not need to look at many word sequences, even quite short ones, before you start finding phrases that have apparently never occurred before in the entire history of the world (if we can judge by the sample of it that the web knows about).

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    More bovine excrement to rebut

    Recently someone who runs some sort of online discussion forum wrote to ask me about the accuracy (or otherwise) of two bipartite claims. One said that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness" and that "This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and the other said that in non-literate cultures "people have more verbs in their language" while we English speakers "have more nouns," and that "Our language [= English] is actor centered and their language is action centered."

    I feel I have to make an effort to aid the benighted, so I responded to this cry for help. I made a few false starts on drafts containing phrases like "utter raving nutball" and "toxic, festering, postmodernist bullshit," which I then erased, and finally I settled down to write a kinder, gentler response. I didn't manage brilliantly — what I wrote won't win any prizes at a kindness-and-gentleness show, if they have such things — but I reined myself in a little (not voicing my suspicion that the writer's brain had been poisoned by reading Derrida, for example, because I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive), and what I wrote back was as follows.

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    Humor among the Finns

    According to The Economist (July 9, 2016, "Just visiting" [p.30 in UK edition]), a joke was "making the rounds" in Finland back in 2008 when Russia invaded part of Georgia (and Finns aren't laughing at it quite so much since the Ukraine conflict flared up):

    Vladimir Putin lands at Helsinki airport and proceeds to passport control. "Name?" asks the border guard. "Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," answers the Russian president. "Occupation?" asks the border guard. "No, just visiting," answers Mr Putin.

    But wait a minute, I thought: that relies on a pun. In English the word for a militarily backed presence and control of governmental functions imposed by one state on the territory of another happens to be identical with one of the words for a person's regular paying job or profession. Are the two also, by pure accident, identical in Finnish (a non-Indo-European language)? That somehow feels implausible to me.

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    McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

    The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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    Post Office nerdview (capped)

    Postal orders are a way for people in Britain to send money by post without having a checking account, but there is a fee, dependent on the face value of the order. For a postal order with a face value of more than £100 the fee is shown on the Post Office web page as "Capped at £12.50", which puzzled Matt Keefe. He wrote to me to ask if it was an instance of nerdview. Absolutely; that's exactly what it is.

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    Systematic wanting

    Says Bagehot, the pseudonym-cloaked correspondent of The Economist who writes a page of comment on British affairs every week (25 June 2016, p. 27 in Brexit-delayed UK edition; not present in the US edition dated June 25):

    As early as January a top Brexiteer freely admitted to Bagehot that his campaign planned to turn the public against its leaders; it wanted systematically to delegitimise Britain's pro-EU political, bureaucratic and business elites.

    Is that the first time you've heard anyone talking about systematic wanting? It's a first for me. But of course The Economist is just sticking to its dreadful policy of syntactic self-harm, by mechanically moving adverbs to the left so that they don't follow to in an infinitival complement.

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