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:

    Nervous cluelessness and getting there first

    An email correspondent working for someone who is (evidently) a clueless would-be grammar purist appealed to me recently for help:

    I am working with a client who insists that it is grammatically incorrect to use Get There First as a tag line. For the life of us, we cannot figure out what is grammatically incorrect about this phrase. Can you shed any light on our mystery?

    Of course I can! Here at Language Log we solve half a dozen grammar mysteries of this sort before breakfast. I can not only finger the client's reaction as classic nervous cluelessness; I think I can identify the etiology of the mistake.

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    Nous sommes Charlie

    jesuischarlie Should publishing a cartoon representation of the prophet Mohammed be punishable by death?

    After the massacre of magazine staff by lunatic Islamist murderers that took place in Paris two days ago, many who think the answer is "No" have begun displaying buttons or placards saying Je suis Charlie. I'd wear one myself if I could get one.

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    Where the language diversity is

    In the articles-noted-but-not-yet-studied pile: an article on language diversity in a journal that (as reader Ted McClure points out to me) linguists might easily have missed (though at least some linguistics blogs covered it): in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (281, 20133029), earlier this year, Jacob Bock Axelsen and Susanna Manrubia published a paper entitled "River density and landscape roughness are universal determinants of linguistic diversity." The abstract says:

    Global linguistic diversity (LD) displays highly heterogeneous distribution patterns. Though the origin of the latter is not yet fully understood, remarkable parallelisms with biodiversity distribution suggest that environmental variables should play an essential role in their emergence. In an effort to construct a broad framework to explain world LD and to systematize the available data, we have investigated the significance of 14 variables: landscape roughness, altitude, river density, distance to lakes, seasonal maximum, average and minimum temperature, precipitation and vegetation, and population density. Landscape roughness and river density are the only two variables that universally affect LD. Overall, the considered set accounts for up to 80% of African LD, a figure that decreases for the joint Asia, Australia and the Pacific (69%), Europe (56%) and the Americas (53%). Differences among those regions can be traced down to a few variables that permit an interpretation of their current states of LD. Our processed datasets can be applied to the analysis of correlations in other similar heterogeneous patterns with a broad spatial distribution, the clearest example being biological diversity. The statistical method we have used can be understood as a tool for cross-comparison among geographical regions, including the prediction of spatial diversity in alternative scenarios or in changing environments.

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    Now it's cows that use names (sigh)

    According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names."

    How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.

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    No-excuses split infinitive in The Economist

    I have grumbled on several previous occasions about the Economist's stubborn adherence to a brainless policy that its editors maintain: no adjuncts are to be located between the to and the verb in an infinitival clause, lest readers should get annoyed. That is, the magazine's style guide insists that the "split infinitive" construction should be avoided even though it is well known that the rule barring it is a 19th-century fiction and there is no serious rational ground for practicing the syntactic self-denial in question. The reason I grumble is that the more notable institutions like magazines or publishing houses insist on such silly rules the more money and time get wasted on enforcing compliance. So I was pleased to see this week that The Economist had slipped up and let one through. The court does not have nationwide jurisdiction, so the mogul is unlikely to ever be thrown behind bars said an article about the Pakistani blasphemy law on page 59 of the November 29th issue.

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    Don't even know the rules of their own language

    Bob Ladd points out that a commenter ("RobbieLePop") on a Guardian article about Prince Charles (the opinionated prince who is destined to inherit the throne under Britain's hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

    The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

    With he at its head ? Let's face it, the traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in English are simply a mystery to many speakers.

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    Moving house with military precision

    I just moved house this week. (Had to. Lease unexpectedly terminated on the second day of classes in the new academic year. Gaaahh!) Colleagues and friends keep asking me how it went. I've decided that the right thing to say is: "It all went like a military operation."

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    Adverbing, verbing, and adjectiving

    "I don't want to go all language nerd on you," says the female character in today's xkcd cartoon, "but I just legit adverbed 'legit', verbed 'adverb', and adjectived 'language nerd'." Is she correct?

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    Linguist jokes (5)

    I walked into the 7th-floor common room in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences building at the University of Edinburgh yesterday and saw this message on the shared whiteboard:

    The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.

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    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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