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:

    Department of Redundancy Department alert!

    Haters of redundancy, get ready to bristle at this email announcement I received today:

    Please note that the 7th floor common room in the Dugald Stewart Building will be closed today from 10:30am until 1pm due to an event taking place.

    An event taking place? But isn't taking place the only thing that events can do? Isn't taking place their whole thing, the only property they have in common? We have a redundancy here!

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    Inches

    The headline above this page at TheHill.com says Warren inches away from Obama. And Bob Ayers, who pointed it out to me, was surprised that anyone would judge Elizabeth Warren to be that close to Obama on the issues, since they disagree quite a bit. I agree with Bob: I also read the sentence that way (the wrong way) at first. But if you read the text you soon see that they must have meant inches as a 3rd-person-singular verb, not a plural noun, and that reverses the key entailment. She isn't a mere few inches away from the president; she is edging away from him.

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    Fan-fold ticket stock nerdview

    We have not discussed any examples of nerdview on Language Log for a while. But Bob Ladd told me of one the other day. He was at the Edinburgh Airport dropping someone off, and pulled up next to the ticket dispensing machine for the short-stay car park. He pushed the button, but no ticket appeared. Instead, the display screen of the machine showed a message: "OUT OF FAN-FOLD TICKETS".

    Not having encountered the term "fan-fold" (I guess he never owned a tractor-feed printer in the 1980s), he was momentarily flummoxed. What the hell was a fan-fold ticket, and what was he supposed to do, given that there apparently weren't any, and he had to take one to make the white bar lift up so he could go in?

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    The grammar of "Better Together"

    The official name of the organization campaigning for a No vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is "Better Together." That phrase was originally the campaign's main slogan. Much has been written in recent days about the campaign's evident signs of panic, but no one has commented on the stupidity of "Better Together" as a slogan. (It was actually ditched by the campaign in June, and replaced by an even more pathetic slogan: "No Thanks.")

    Better together is an adjective phrase. Used on its own, without any logical subject or other accompanying noun phrases, it is apparently supposed to affirm that something will go better in some way for someone than something else if something is together with something else, but it doesn't specify any of these someones or somethings. Yet the cui bono issue (who benefits) is absolutely crucial to the debate. The ineptness of the sloganeering is almost unbelievable.

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    The paucity of two-letter words

    The number of possible two-letter lower-case strings over the English alphabet (not including the apostrophe) is 262 = 676. This morning I ran a script to test which two-letter sequences show up as words included in the standard 25,143-word list of words supplied with many Unix-derived systems (usually at /usr/share/dict/words). I found the proportion of two-letter sequences that are 2-letter words is roughly 9 percent (59/676 ≈ 0.09). That is, more than 90 percent of the logically possible two-letter combinations from aa to zz do not occur as spellings of common English words. You might think a lot of the explanation lies in phonetics: vowelless combinations like pq or bn are unpronounceable. But I then did the same thing for two-letter standard Unix commands: bc (basic calculator), cp (copy files), ls (list files), mv (move or rename files), etc. These arbitrarily adopted program names do not have to be pronounceable, and usually aren't. And I found that the ratio of two-letter Unix commands (more precisely, two-letter commands that have manual entries on Apple OS X version 10.6.8.) to two-letter sequences that are not Unix commands is almost exactly the same (62/676 ≈ 0.09). Why? Could it be that some kind of natural law discourages packing too many meanings into character strings (or phoneme sequences) of a given length, because it is likely to give rise to confusion or mnemonic problems? Does every language waste (as it were) at least 90 percent of the space available in the length-N sequences of letters or sounds that it uses, possibly for every N > 1?

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    Metaphors and the brain: check it out

    "Your Brain on Metaphors", at the The Chronicle of Higher Education's site, is interesting non-technical reading for anyone interested in the idea of experimentation on metaphors, idioms, and the way the brain processes them. I recommend reading the whole thing.

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    Can you spell "bus"?

    I have commented before on the psycholinguistics of signs painted on roads: in the USA it is apparently assumed that drivers will read the words in the order in which their front wheels reach them, so that what appears to be a display with "ONLY" above "LANE" above "BIKE" is supposed to be read as "BIKE LANE ONLY". In the UK, the opposite assumption is made: that drivers will read the whole display as a text that starts at the top. However, in one startling recent case in Bristol, south-west England, the people who painted the sign on the road warning of a bus stop never read it at all, in either order. They just stencilled "BUP STOP" on the roadway and packed up and left. Photographic evidence supplied herewith, just in case you cannot believe anyone capable of holding down a local government job could be unable to spell "BUS".

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    Postcard from Edinburgh

    The Edinburgh Festival season is almost over. Giant tents are already being taken down at the BBC site on university land below my office window. Soon (Sunday, August 31) will come the final outdoor concert in the Princes Street Gardens, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra sitting below a thousand-year-old castle playing dramatic music (Ride of the Valkyries, War March of the Priests from Athalie, Marche Écossaise, 1812 Overture) as hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of fireworks explode in perfect computer-synchronized time to the music.

    The Festival Fringe, an enormous array of performances and events dwarfing the actual Edinburgh International Festival, turns the entire city into one huge crazy street party, with jugglers and escapologists and buskers performing in every nook and cranny of the ancient streets and pay-for-tickets performances in every rentable club or hall or church or room that can be turned into performance space. Literally millions of tickets have been sold for literally thousands of performances at literally hundreds of venues (there's a reason I haven't been writing much for Language Log this past month). The Fringe is far too big to provide grammatical advice to performers; one show I went to, a fabulous taiko drumming exhibition, advertised itself under the totally ungrammatical phrase "Japan Marvelous Drummers".

    Every comedian in the country has been here this month to try out new material for the fall season in the clubs and theaters, and in consequence I can now bring to Language Log (in case you missed the British newspapers reporting it about a week ago) the Best Joke of 2014.

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    Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

    Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! What's going on? Is Language Log beginning to break through? Are journalists waking up to the fact that there actually is a definition of the notion 'passive voice' (though hardly anybody seems to know what it is)? The article is by Tristin Hopper of the National Post in Canada (August 8, 2014); you can read it here. Kudos to Tristin.

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    No dawn for ape-language theory

    As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

    I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

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    The state of the machine translation art

    I don't know any Hebrew. So when I recently saw a comment in Hebrew on a Google Plus page of discussion about Gaza tunnel-building that I was looking at, I clicked (with some forebodings) on the "Translate" link to see what it meant. What I got was this:

    Some grazing has hurt they Stands citizens Susan Hammer year

    This does not even offer enough of an inkling to permit me to guess at what the writer of the original Hebrew might have been saying. It might as well have said "Grill tree ecumenical the fox Shove sample Quentin Garage plastic."

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    Honesty about leadership

    The Dilbert strip continues to make me laugh out loud almost every morning. If you missed the day when the boss asked Dilbert for an "honest assessment" of his leadership, go back to it and catch up. Dilbert's 30-minute response to this invitation ended with the words "like being stabbed by an angry clown while drowning in a septic tank." Simile of the week, for sure. I wonder if anyone told Microsoft's Satya Nadella anything similar in the past few days.

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    Because come on

    Philip Bump's article about the initiative aimed at splitting Caifornia into six new states contains a cute example of a new playful extension of the use of because:

    Happily, in this instance the federal government would have to sign off on the idea, which it will never do, because, come on.

    It's not a real extension of the syntax that allows because to take imperative clause complements, of course; it's just a humorous way to dismiss the idea of federal approval, taking its structure from the kind of changes of plan that happen in casual talk. Here the plan for a preposition phrase with because is just abandoned, and the idiomatic "come on" injunction to get real is substituted. But it works very nicely.

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    Officer-involved passives

    Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

    So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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    Usage masochism

    I think it is time to make public my private suspicion that most of the customers for prescriptive usage guides are masochists. They want to be punished for imaginary grammar crimes. I plan to speak out. My paper at the Cambridge English Usage Guides Symposium this Friday afternoon will be entitled "The usage game: catering to perverts." Abstract here.

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