I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

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Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

Umm, excuse me? A cult? Who are my followers? He can only be referring to… well, you who read Language Log! Who else could they be, these uniformed thugs under my supposed control? Does my cult hold meetings or rallies? In what city, on what fantasy planet, do the cult members roam the streets beating up those who oppose me?

I found myself wondering about the sanity of some people in the discussion. And also about whether it is even sensible of The Daily Telegraph to provide an alley in which they can punch and stab each other.

You might like to read Tom Chivers' article (as many of the commenters have not) and judge whether he quotes anything from our long conversation that might suggest I lead a rabble-rousing fascist cult. Chivers seems to me to have done a decent job of making an article about linguistics out of our lunchtime chat some months ago. But the reactions he has elicited have to a large extent been pre-recorded hostile messages.

People react without even looking to see who wrote the article: some seem to believe I wrote it. Look at this email I received from a complete stranger soon after Chivers' article appeared on the web last Thursday, and before I even knew it existed (I conceal the sender's real name and email address to save him embarrassment):

From David xxxxxxxx
20 March 2014, 7:39 am


In you article you ask whether what you call the "grammar police" are ruining our language. No, they are not. When I ran a business I would not employ anyone who could not write a simple grammatical sentence on the application form.


Now, I have to admit I was a little unkind in my reply to this extraordinarily careless and dim-witted correspondent (he is wrong about whether I used the term "grammar police": I didn't). But I didn't send my thugs out to beat him up in the street. I simply said this:

From Geoff Pullum
20 March 2014, 9:05 am

On Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 7:39 AM, David xxxxxxxx wrote:

> In you article you ask whether what you call the "grammar police"
> are ruining our language. No, they are not. When I ran a business
> I would not employ anyone who could not write a simple grammatical
> sentence on the application form.

Do you seriously think that you and I differ on this point? I wouldn't employ anyone who couldn't write grammatical Standard English either. I might even turn down your application: your message (quoted above) begins "In you article", which is a grammar mistake.

By the way, you seem to believe that I have published an article in The Daily Telegraph. I haven't. Not ever in my whole life. You should look more closely at the by-line. I don't even know what you have been reading, only that you have been reading it carelessly.

--Geoff Pullum

We have not become close friends as a result of this interaction. But then I don't aim to form many of my close friendships via either hostile emails from strangers or comments on newspaper articles' websites. I plan to stay away from the bars outside which the Telegraph's commenters have their inebriated street fights. And I plan to spend at least another year never allowing comments here at Language Log (where I have control over whether to open comments), and seldom reading any of the comments that appear in other places (e.g. at Lingua Franca). I will reconsider my policy some time in mid 2015.

Meanwhile, to join my cult please send a snailmail request to Pullum Cult, c/o The Daily Telegraph, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, UK, or phone 1-800-GKP-CULT.

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