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:

    Ask Language Log: with + nonfinite clause?

    A staff member at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, responsible for providing guidance for journalists on pronunciation, terminology, grammar, and usage, has asked me about "a particular usage of with, which seems to be doing the job of a conjunction." He wonders whether the construction in question is correct English or not. He supplies these attested examples (all already published by ABC news, so one thing we know is that on this matter the usage train has left the station):

    1. "Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote." (found here)
    2. "Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted, with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready to have his identity revealed." (found here)
    3. "President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House, with officials saying the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models." (found here)

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    A virus that fixes your grammar

    In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

    That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

    There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

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    Courtesy and personal pronoun choice

    My most recent post started out as a very minor note of approval about the continuing spread of singular they in journalism. Then the person who sent me the quote realized that Phillip Garcia, named in the cited newspaper story, had a preference for being referred to with the pronoun they, which nullified the point. So I modified the post to acknowledge that. I added a side remark that this caused a difficulty for me: although I find singular they fully grammatical and entirely natural with many types of antecedent, that's not true for singular personal name antecedents. I didn't reject the notion of following Garcia's preference; I said "I'll do my best, but it will be a real struggle."

    Ironically, on re-reading the paragraph I saw it was more of a struggle than I thought: within minutes of learning about Garcia's preference I had unintentionally disrespected it by using "he". So I went back and corrected myself, overtly, the way people do in speech ("Phillip Garcia's profile reveals that he is — sorry, that they are…"). It was not snarky; it was an honest admission that I had found it hard to make an instant change to my syntactic habits. But it prompted an angry and disappointed reader signing in as Cass to comment* that my post was "immensely transphobic", and failing an immediate apology, "Language Log needs to take him off this blog."

    This is Language Log, so let's be careful with our word choices. What has transphobia got to do with this? My young friend Magnus, born about 18 years ago as the daughter of a good friend of mine but now militantly trans-identified and male, expects to be called "he". I respect his wishes, of course. The use of they under consideration here has (normally) nothing to do with being trans. It's the requested usage of those who (whether trans or not) hate the binary sex distinction that Magnus has rebelled against in his own way; they wish to be referred to in a way that does not assign them to a sex category at all. I have young friends of that persuasion too, and I do my best to avoid the gendered third person singular pronouns when talking about them. I respect their choice.

    Yet for simply touching in passing on a slight problem for the they-preference, I am suddenly the conservative hate figure of the week, targeted for dismissal and subjected to streams of hostility in an intemperate guest post by Kirby Conrod and a welter of comments underneath it. This hostility is, to put it mildly, unmotivated and misdirected.

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    A letter saying they won

    Evidence continues to pile up that singular they is naturally used in standard English whenever the antecedent is indefinite or quantifier-like (not a personal name, for example) and the sex of whoever it might turn out to identify is completely immaterial. My correspondent Daniel Sterman thought, and I thought too, that there was evidence of this being true now even in the writing of journalists. Sterman spotted this in an article by John Bowden, writing in The Hill, concerning Temple University PhD candidate Phillip Garcia, who has won the position of judge of election in Ward 21, Division 10, Philadelphia:

    A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.

    "I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill. "I've written my name in a few times during elections when no one else is listed for a position. It's just been a thing I do, with no expectation of, like, actually making an impact on the vote."

    But we were wrong here (this post has been corrected in the past hour).

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    Just press Pay

    This is a screen shot I snapped during a recent attempt to purchase something (can't remember what) on the web:

    Notice that in order to continue, it tells me (twice) that I have to press "Pay". Can you see any button labeled "Pay" on the screen?

    If you are itching to tell me what I should have done, you are missing my point.

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    From 'a terrible' to 'the latest'

    It's the saddest thing I have seen in many months of sad news: The front page of the Metro, a free newspaper given away on the buses in Britain, said "At least 27 people were killed during a morning church service in the latest US shooting massacre."

    "The latest"! They're now so routine that the Metro has switched from indefinite to definite article. It's not "a terrible shooting massacre in the US" anymore, it's just "the latest US shooting massacre." Everyone knows there will be more. This one was merely the latest. The governor's prayers are with the people of Sutherland Springs; the president sends word from Japan that it wasn't about guns, it was about mental illness. See page 4 for the Queen's investment in offshore tax havens, page 6 for the governing party Member of Parliament who puts his hand up women's skirts in elevators.

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    Semantics at the Supreme Court

    “What is the difference between ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘substantial need’?” asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see this story in the New York Times). “I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can’t think of an example.”

    Several of the court’s more liberal justices disagreed, saying that “reasonably necessary” connoted matters that a reasonable lawyer with finite resources would try to pursue.

    On the outcome there hangs the issue of whether death row inmates like Carlos Manuel Ayestas in Texas will get legal aid. A federal appeals court in New Orleans, which oversees cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, says there must a “substantial need” for the money, and denied funds to Ayestas. He challenged the denial.

    So don't ever say there is no practical importance to the work semanticists do as they try to identify truth-conditional differences between terms of broadly similar meaning.

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    World domination and threats to the public

    Linguistics is in the most desirable quadrant according to today's xkcd: low likelihood of being a crucial tool for a supervillain, and low probability of anything breaking out of the research environment and threatening the general population.

    But I'm not at all sure that everything is positioned correctly. Molasses storage should be further to the right (never forget the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919); dentistry should be moved up (remember Marathon Man); robotics in its current state is too highly ranked on both axes; and entomology, right now (October 18, 2017), in addition to being slightly too low, is spelled wrong. Lots to quibble about, I'd say. But not the standing of linguistics as a safe thing to work on.

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    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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