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:

    Tory uses N-word… not

    "Tory MP suspended for racist remark" says the Financial Times headline, just two hours ago as I write this. A Conservative member of parliament suspended from the party within hours after being recorded making a racist remark in a public meeting! A remark involving "the N-word", too! As an anti-racist with no love for the Tories, I was eager to find out the details of this latest embarrassment. But in seconds after I turned to the first newspaper account I realized I was in for a disappointment. It turns out to be fake news. Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.

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    Becoming an adjective

    A friend points out to me that according to this Abe Books description of a hardback copy of Jane Jacobs' classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the back cover it is reported that Toronto Life made the following assertion:

    Jane Jacobs has become more than a person. She is an adjective.

    If you care to read on, I will do my best to explain the meaning of this comment.

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    Death by french fries

    The Daily Telegraph did not do much for its reputation, at least in my eyes, when it confused the defense with the prosecution after a celebrity sexual assault mistrial. Nor when it recently consulted me about whether there were grammar mistakes on a banknote, learned that there clearly were not, but went ahead and published the claim that there were anyway. Now for a sample of the Telegraph's science reporting, written by Adam Boult, who I suspect didn't complete his statistics course:

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    Defense counsel for the victim?

    A truly Freudian slip in a story in the UK conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph, speaking volumes about what goes wrong with so many rape and sexual assault prosecutions:

    Camille Cosby, wife of the entertainer, issued a statement, read out by an associate on the court steps in a dramatically-delivered speech.

    She attacked the judge as biased, and said the defence were "totally unethical."

    The defense? Andrea Constand and the other brave women who have accused Bill Cosby (they say he drugged them so he could enjoy sexual gratification without their consent) were not in the dock, and the lawyers arguing their case were not the defense team, but the prosecutors. The Telegraph journalist, Harriet Alexander, has apparently reversed the roles of the accused's defense and the district attorney.

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    How swift we misoverestimate

    How swift we forget echoes in my head as a familiar cliché, a precomposed adaptable drop-in phrase rather like a snowclone but without customizable parts. I thought it might even be a quotation from some famous source. When I happened to Google-search it today, I was expecting to see millions of hits. Instead there was exactly one, in an utterly obscure short comment on the HeroClix discussion forum. This astonished me. I figured all the millions of others must correct swift to its adverb form swiftly. So I repeated the search on How swiftly we forget. And I was astonished again. Just 26 hits, with some repetitions and duplicates so similar that Google didn't want to show them. Only 70 hits even if you force the display of the duplicates. Given the size of the web today, that should be regarded as approximately zero.

    I mention this only because it reminds me that while we all have vague impressions of how often we hear or read something, vast numbers of those impressions are probably wrong (especially when we imagine we have been hearing something more often recently). And it seems to me that this must have some sort of relevance for the cognitive scientists who believe language learning is based on subliminal perceptions of the frequency of encountered word sequences. Though my feeling that it must have some sort of relevance is probably wrong too. It is a mysterious business, language. (Just ignore me. I'm merely ruminating in public. I shouldn't. I'm just wasting your time. Please go on with whatever you were doing.)

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    Four candles for Ronnie Corbett

    Ronnie Corbett died on March 31, 2016, a year after his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig's disease. A long-planned memorial service for him was held a couple of days ago in Westminster Abbey. That's an honor reserved for only the most important figures in British life. At the front of the church during the service was the famous armchair in which he always sat to do his featured monologue (generally a ridiculous shaggy-dog-story joke with many digressions) during the TV show he did with Ronnie Barker, called The Two Ronnies. And just as at his funeral more than a year ago, four candles were displayed along with the chair. It was an allusion to the truly legendary sketch in which Corbett and Barker riffed on almost-indistinguishable phonetic strings in working-class vernacular Southern British English — pairs like four candlesfork handles. In the unlikely event you've never watched it (it's been mentioned on Language Log a few times, of course, especially by commenters), watch it now, and remember one of the finest of British comedians — perhaps the most loved of them all.

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    Study the linguistics of Game of Thrones

    At the instant of posting this, there are only 18 places remaining out of the 40 maximum in Linguistics 183 001, David Peterson's summer session course at UC Berkeley on "The Linguistics of Game of Thrones and the Art of Language Invention." 3 to 5 p.m., Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu, May 22 to June 30.

    It's not a 'Structure of Dothraki' course; it's about how you go about inventing languages (Peterson has done this for film and TV several times, and has been paid money for it).

    Hurry to sign up. And don't ever let me hear you saying that linguistics doesn't provide fun things to do.

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    On whether prairie dogs can talk

    Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is "Can Prairie Dogs Talk?"

    It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr's question.

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    Similes for quality of computer code

    I must admit to having enjoyed the series of savage similes about quality of computer program code presented in three xkcd comic strips. They show a female character, known to aficionados as Ponytail, reluctantly agreeing to take a critical look at some code that the male character Cueball has written. Almost at first sight, she begins to describe it using utterly brutal similes. In the first strip (at http://xkcd.com/1513) she announces that reading it is "like being in a house built by a child using nothing but a hatchet and a picture of a house." But Ponytail is not done: there is more bile and contempt where that came from.

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    Annals of incompetent spam: the weeding ceremony

    A spam email I received this morning (addressed to me and three other addresses, no subject; the sender was "david mark" at davidmark0066@gmail.com) had the following text:

    Hello this is david i will like to know if you can handle my weeding ceremony  and do you own the service ??

    I actually never realized people had weeding ceremonies. I thought you just got out there with a trowel and a pair of kneepads and dug out those unwanted plants without benefit of any rituals of any sort. But some may have different traditions. We must be open to cultural diversity.

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    Active seeming: dumb grammar fetishism yet again

    Last January 21 The Economist actually printed a letter I wrote pointing out that how wirelessly to hack a car was a ridiculous way to say "how to wirelessly hack a car," and resulted from a perverted and dimwitted obeisance to a zombie rule. But did they actually listen, and think about changing their ways? They did not. I have no idea how they manage to publish a beautiful magazine every Thursday night when they are so mentally crippled by eccentric 19th-century grammar edicts that they will commit syntactic self-harm rather than go against the prejudices of a few doddering old amateur grammarians in the middle 1800s who worried about the "split infinitive." Take a look at this nonsense from the magazine's leader in the issue of April 22, about UK prime minister Theresa May's chances of having more flexibility after the general election she has called:

    With a larger majority she can more easily stand up to her ultra-Eurosceptic backbenchers, some of whom seem actively to want Britain to crash out.

    Seem actively??

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    Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

    I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

    https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
    You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

    http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
    When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

    [By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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    Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog

    Following Bean's guest post about being scorned by an 8-year-old child for not using singular they when it was appropriate, Language Log now presents the first evidence (to my knowledge) of a newspaper abandoning the usual use of it to refer to animals, and instead using singular they for an unknown arbitrary animal. This is from an article in the Metro (a free UK daily) on what to do if you find someone's dog close to death because it has been locked in a car on a hot day; I boldface the pronouns of interest:

    Get the dog out of the car and move them to a shaded, or cooler area. Then, douse the dog with cool water and let them drink small amounts of it. Make sure the water is cool but not cold, to avoid shock.

    If the dog is not displaying signs of heatstroke, let them rest while you establish how long they were in the car, and make a note of the vehicle's registration.

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