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:

    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.

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    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.

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    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]

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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."

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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