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:

    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:

    puAccNetID
    puStaffNo
    puUserGivenName
    puUserSurname

    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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    Editing wars at London Bridge Street

    As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

    Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

    The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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    Rinse thoroughly

    As Mark Liberman has often reminded us, when taking things from newspapers you have to be very careful about what to attribute to the person who allegedly said something and what to attribute to the journalist who reported it or the subeditor who futzed with what the journalist turned in. So when we read this in the New York Times about a Parisian hair stylist named Christophe Robin, caution is in order as we try to assign responsibility for the syntactic blunder:

    Mr. Robin, who is based in Paris, has also noticed scalp problems at his salon, but he thinks the issue is not under-shampooing but rather that women are not cleansing properly.

    "Women are in too much of a rush," he said. "You need to rinse very thoroughly the products out of your hair."

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    How wirelessly to hack

    You don't think the ridiculous split-infinitive avoidance contortions at my favorite magazine could have started being exaggerated just as a sort of private joke on me, do you? I have reported many times on the absurd syntax that The Economist is prepared to countenance rather than ignore its cowardly advice of its style guide ("The ban [on split infinitives] is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it"). A leader on internet security ("Breaching-point") in the Christmas double issue (December 24, 2016) tells us, in what I think is not just unstylish but actually a violation of normal English syntax:

    At a computer-security conference in 2015, researchers demonstrated how wirelessly to hack a car made by Jeep, spinning its steering wheel or slamming on its brakes.

    How wirelessly to hack ?? Unbelievable. (You can find the article online with a Google search on "how wirelessly to hack". As I write, it is the only hit: no one has ever written that misbegotten four-word sequence in the prior history of the world.*

    Nobody who hadn't been driven into a state of nervous cluelessness by bad style advice could think that was the right order of words. Part of the reason is that how often functions as an initial modifier constituent of an adjective or adverb phrase.

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    He comfortable! He quickly dry!

    A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

    ABOUT xxxxxxxx
    He comfortable
    He elastic
    He quickly dry
    He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
    No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
    Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
    Become your friends, Partner,
    Part of life

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    It was taking photos

    This sentence is from a report in The Guardian, a UK paper, but I suspect it was written in the USA, where the (fictive) rule that a pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent noun is often taken very seriously:

    One person was killed and five others were injured when a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while it took photographs at a southern California park on Saturday, authorities said.

    I have seldom seen a case where a noun denoting a collection of people acting jointly felt so much in need of being allowed to be the antecedent of the plural pronoun they. But under the strict syntactic rule that some people wrongly imagine they should apply, they needs a plural antecedent, and party is singular (and non-human).

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    Bus sign nerdview in Sydney

    It's good to find a prominently displayed list of local bus routes that you can Find your way consult when you arrive at the train station in a big city that perhaps you do not know.

    And Sydney Central station in New South Wales, Australia, has exactly that. There is a big board headed "Find your way" at the station. But let's take a closer look at it. See if you can spot the nerdview (pointed out to me by Language Log reader Geoff Dawson).

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