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:

    What other people might put it

    depp

    Comedian Doug Stanhope is unable to sleep at night over the way his friend Johnny Depp is being pilloried by his wife, Amber Heard; so he did the obvious thing any friend would do: he submitted an expletive-laced article about his angst over the situation to The Wrap. (It has 9 shits, 7 fucks, and one asshole, all cloaked in partial dashification by The Wr––'s cautious c–nsors.) But this is Language Log, not Celebrity Embarrassment Log, and my topic here is syntax. Stanhope and his girlfriend Bingo "have watched Amber Heard f––– with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from [sic] being f–––ed with" (yes, that preposition from puzzles me too), and he now believes it is time to "tell the f–––ng truth" about his friend:

    Bingo and I were at Johnny's house for most of that Saturday until just before the alleged assault. We assumed initially that his dour mood was because of his mother's death the day before. But he opened up in the most vulnerable of ways that it was not only his mother, but that Amber was now going to leave him, threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn't agree to her terms. Blackmail is what I would imagine other people might put it, including the manner in which he is now being vilified.

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    Needless words

    I know I've been a long-time critic of everything in The Elements of Style, not least William Strunk's platitude that you should omit needless words. "Needless" is not defined even vaguely; nobody really writes in a way that sticks to the absolute minimum word count; and if neophyte writers could tell what was needless they wouldn't have to be handed this platitude (which they don't really know how to use anyway). But every now and then one really does see a case of a word that screams at you that it should have been left out. The University of Oxford has an official form on which this is the heading:

    CLAIM FOR REIMBURSEMENT OF ALLOWABLE EXPENSES

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    Obama and the end of the queue

    Over the past few days the British media (newspapers and BBC news programs) have been talking about a crucially linguistic argument that President Obama is being manipulated, and literally told what to say, by the UK prime minister's office. (Links seem superfluous: the Google News UK edition will give you thousands of references.) The evidence comes from a single choice of lexical item.

    During the two working days Obama spent in Britain, the main news-generating event was a news conference in which he directly addressed the issue of whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave it. A key argument for those who believe in leaving the EU (the proponents of Brexit) has been that new trade agreements could readily be set up once the country was free from the shackles of EU membership. Specifically, a trade agreement could be readily set up with the USA. Not so fast, said Obama: the USA will continue its negotiating efforts aimed at setting up a trade agreement with the whole EU, and if the UK left that grouping (the largest single market in the world) it would "be in the back of the queue" if it applied to get a special UK/US trade agreement established.

    The Brexit crew jumped on the use of the word queue. Americans talk about waiting in line, not waiting in a queue or queueing up. "The back of the queue" is characteristic British English, and no American would say any such thing, they insisted. Obama's remarks must have been prepared for him by British pro-EU politicians. Are the Brexiteers right?

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    Tell the truth!

    It was a linguistic maneuver that had possibly never been tried before in the history of real estate: tell the straight truth about the property, no varnishing, no slathering with adjectives like "stunning". Just tell it like it is. One brave firm of real estate agents, Scott & Stapleton in England, tried it as a way of getting rid of a run-down apartment in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The manager, Rob Kahl, wrote the copy:

    Not for the faint hearted this first floor flat is being sold as seen, rubbish and all!

    Having recently just had to evict some charming (not) tenants the vendors of this property have had enough and can't even face setting foot in what used to be their sweet and charming home.

    I can't flower this one up or use my normal estate agent jargon to make this sound any better.

    The property is full of rubbish, there is mould on the walls and I think there may even be some fleas there to keep me company when I carry out the viewings.

    To conclude, the advertisement advised those viewing the property to "wipe your feet on the way out".

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    Endowed chairs at the 2017 Linguistic Institute

    Anyone familiar with academia will have noticed how often the high-prestige invited participants at conferences or summer schools and the holders of endowed professorships tend to be men. Well, not so much in linguistics, it would seem. Look at the list of the faculty members selected to hold the four prestigious endowed professorships at the 2017 Linguistic Institute, a large summer school sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America and hosted next year by the University of Kentucky:

    • Collitz Professor: Joan Bybee (University of New Mexico)
    • Sapir Professor: Penelope Eckert (Stanford University)
    • Hale Professor: Lenore Grenoble (University of Chicago)
    • Fillmore Professor: Julia Hirschberg (Columbia University)

    One hundred percent women for the top invited professorships! And make no mistake, they are all very distinguished senior professors, known worldwide for their research. This isn't tokenism. It's the way our discipline has been developing over the past thirty years or so. Makes a feller proud to be a linguist.

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    Waste bin misnegation

    I saw a sticker on the lid of a pedal-operated hospital waste bin that said this:


    THIS SACK HOLDER IS SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED TO BE FOOT OPERATED ONLY. THE LID MUST NOT BE HAND OPERATED AND PUSHED PAST THE POINT WHERE IT WILL NOT AUTOMATICALLY RETURN TO THE CLOSED POSITION.

    Everyone who uses the bin sees this notice; maybe some even read it and try to respect it; but perhaps only Language Log readers will notice that it contains a misnegation — another sign that the number of negations within a sentence that our poor monkey brains can successfully handle averages out at little more than 1.

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    Glenn Frey and the band with the anomalous name

    Singer-songwriter-guitarist Glenn Frey died two weeks ago, and I found myself reflecting on the poetry of the songs he wrote with Don Henley for a Lingua Franca post (see it here). Working on that caused me to bump up against the odd fact that the band Frey and Henley co-founded had a name that nobody ever gets right.

    Steve Martin reported in his autobiography Born Standing Up that Frey insisted the name was "Eagles", not "The Eagles." Thus the band had settled on a name that was supposed to be what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls a strong proper name like Azerbaijan, which takes no the, not a weak one like (the) Azores, which must have a the. (Language Log, by the way, is a strong proper name.)

    Everyone feels they need to supply a definite article for Eagles. And there's a reason for that. Once you look at the relevant grammatical constraints of English you see that Frey was really swimming upstream.

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    Pressing the House of Commons swiftly

    There is a designated staff member whose job at The Economist is to make the magazine (my favorite magazine) look ridiculous by moving adverbs to unacceptably silly positions in the sentence. She is still at work. This is from the December 12 issue, p. 58, in an article about preparations for a referendum next year on whether Britain should abandon its membership in the European Union:

    Most pollsters reckon a later vote is likely to boost the leave campaign. Avoidance of delay was a big reason why the government this week pressed the House of Commons swiftly to overturn a House of Lords plan to extend the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.

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    You ain't no Muslim

    You ain't no Muslim, bruv! The phrase already gets more than 650,000 hits on Google in the UK, and the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv gets about 1,670,000. It is becoming a mantra, a talismanic incantation for conjuring up goodwill in a world where more and more attempts are being made to foment hatred between Muslims and everyone else.

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    Bad sex writing: really really bad

    I'm pleased to be able to announce on Language Log the winner of the Literary Review's 2015 Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The award went to the singer Morrissey for his debut novel List of the Lost. And it seems to have been honestly earned. The judges cited this sentence:

    Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza's breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra's howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone.

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    Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

    Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

    People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

    You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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    The writing on the wall

    Why won't they call in a linguist?

    The producers of "Homeland," a TV spy drama, were filming a scene (shot in Berlin) in which one of the show's main characters walks through a refugee camp run by Hezbollah, and they employed a group of Arabic-speaking graffiti artists to daub the walls with authentic slogans saying "Muhammed is the greatest." (Presumably referring to the revered Arabian prophet, but sounding a bit more like an allusion to the celebrated American boxer; who knows.) But they forgot to hire a trusted Arabic-competent linguist to proofread. They had no idea what the artists had written on the set walls. It turned out to be slogans like "Homeland is not a series," "Homeland is racist," and "Homeland is rubbish." And those graffiti duly appeared on TV (whereupon the guerilla artists, not wanting their subversion to be missed, revealed what they had done).

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    New discovery in English historical lexicography

    A retired lecturer in medieval history, Dr Paul Booth, has discovered a reference in a 1310 court record to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele, and he believes it really does mean that the man was known as Roger Fuck-By-The-Navel, the surname (possibly a nickname given by enemies) actually meaning "fuck via the belly button", so this may be the earliest known use of the verb fuck in its sexual sense.

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