Geoff Pullum


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:

    Hyphenation with words containing capital letters

    A truly startling (and surely unintended) hyphenation in the print edition of The Economist (March 11th) suggests that some updating of word-breaking algorithms is in order in the light of the fairly recent practice of inventing product and brand names that have word-internal upper-case letters. An article about juvenile delinquency, reporting that kids are less involved in crime in part because they're indoors playing video games, ends with this paragraph (I reproduce the line breaks and hyphens of the UK print edition exactly, though not the microspacing that justifies the right-hand margin; the only thing I'm interested in is the end of the penultimate line):

        The decline in crime among the young
    bodes well for the future. A Home Office
    study in 2013 found that those who com-
    mitted their first crime aged between ten
    and 17 were nearly four times more likely to
    become chronic offenders than those who
    were aged 18-24, and 11 times more likely
    than those who were over 25. More PlayS-
    tation, less police station.

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    What a woman can't do with their body

    Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

    If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

    Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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    Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

    This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It's the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.

    Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

    As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

    In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

    Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

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    Annals of email porn filtering

    I have a German friend who lives amid farmland out east of Edinburgh, and keeps chickens as a hobby. When I visited recently, there was much excitement because one of a clutch of fertile eggs in a small incubator in the living room was beginning to hatch. A tiny beak appeared, and eventually a bedraggled baby bird struggled out and started clambering drunkenly over the shells of its brothers and sisters. Yesterday, after a few weeks had elapsed, my friend wrote to let me know that the tiny creature had been male, and was now an adolescent Cuckoo Maran cockerel. It's the one in the center of the photo he attached:

    And as the Subject line for the email enclosing it, he chose… Ah, but I fear that a few of you may be ahead of me, having realized what I'm about to tell you!

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    The Daily Mail deluding themselves

    An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that "anyone who thinks Labour's problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves."

    It's unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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    New Yorker copy editors (probably) moving adverbs around

    In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

    The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

    To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

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    The language of love, maybe

    I just received an email from a total stranger, a young blonde woman dressed fetchingly in pink (she included two photographs). She may want a romantic relationship with me. But to clarify why I use the modal auxiliary ("may want" rather than "wants"), let me share with you the entire text of the message:

    hello how are you doing amd marry from benaughty i will be happy to here from you

    One scarcely knows what to say.

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    Password nerdview

    Steve Politzer-Ahles was trying to change his password on the Hong Kong Polytechnic University system, and found himself confronted with this warning:

    You may not use the following attribute values for your password:


    Attribute values? This is classic nerdview.

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    The craven feminine pronoun

    The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

    "Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

    J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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    Flaunting party discipline, or flouting it, whatever

    I'm afraid the flaunt/flout distinction may be a lost cause. Yesterday in the UK parliament three Labour Party whips voted against the instructions they were supposed to be enforcing on behalf of the leader of their party, and three times already this morning (the radio has been on since 5:30) I have heard a parliamentary report on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 program Today in which a reporter referred to party whips "who were supposed to impose party discipline, rather than flaunt it."

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    The SISSILY countries

    Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. We're going to need an acronym, in case we forget which are the seven countries on the blacklist. And Language Log is here for you: we have prepared one. Somalia-Iran-Sudan-Syria-Iraq-Libya-Yemen: SISSILY. We can refer to them as the SISSILY countries. And to convince you of the threat they pose, I have prepared a table of the statistics for all of the terrorist murders that the evil citizens of those countries have perpetrated so far. The table is below. I warn you, the data are rather shocking.

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    In a swirl of synonyms and grammar terms, calling a noun a noun

    Dan Barry's recent article in The New York Times is headed: "In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie." And pretty soon, he is of course reaching for the dread allegation of writing in the "passive". Does he know what that charge means? No. Like almost everybody who has been to college in America, he vaguely knows that passive is bad in some way that he can't quite put his finger on, but he doesn't actually know when it is appropriate to use the term "passive" and when it isn't (see this paper of mine for a couple of dozen similar cases of mistaken allegations of using the passive). He says this:

    To say that someone has "lied," an active verb, or has told a "lie," a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.

    His "active verb" is not transitive, so it doesn't have a passive version; and his "passive, distancing" counterpart is not verbal at all, and hence has nothing to do with passive constructions. What on earth does he think these terms mean? Nouns have nothing at all to do with either the grammatical concept of passive voice or the rhetorical concept of distancing oneself from the content of a claim.

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    The temperature is struggling

    I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

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