All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

by

Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

images

Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was … The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick called Plan …

by

Talking About Word Aversion on TV

Language Log has devoted occasional posts to word aversion since Mark Liberman first discussed it in 2007. The New Yorker took it up in April 2012, and the Huffington Post did likewise that December (though neither used the term “word aversion”). Slate magazine followed in April 2013, and then various British newspapers; and now I’ve been asked to discuss the topic on a BBC early-evening magazine-style TV program, The One Show.

You might think it’s a big strike against me that I’ve never researc…

by

If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

by

Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…

by

Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

by

6 Likes, Liked and Disliked

index

Like No. 2

Linda Hall writes in The Conversation about strategies for getting students to make less use of the hated monosyllable like. She cites (and admits that she respects) an essay by David Grambs, “The Like Virus,” in the August 2011 edition of The Vocabula Review, a subscription-only online periodical of linguistic peeving (it is reprinted in Exploring Language, edited by Gary Goshgarian, pages 303-310).

Grambs (could that be a clerical error for “Gramps” or “Grumps”?) doesn’t just hate y…

by

Being a Subject

As in previous fall semesters, I’m teaching (jointly with my colleague Nik Gisborne) a course that tries to unite modern modes of thinking about language with the description of English grammar. Just basic, ordinary grammar of the sort you would think might be taught in grade school (and once was). And once more, as I reaquaint myself with some of the statements obediently repeated in virtually all traditional grammars, I am staggered that anyone could ever have believed claims that are so obvio…

by

Better Together for Whom?

yes-no2The organization campaigning for a No vote in the September 18 Scottish independence referendum chose as its name, and initially its primary slogan, the phrase “Better Together.” Recently the campaign has been floundering, and showing signs of panic. Its political missteps have been much discussed in Britain. But the vagueness and evasiveness of the “Better Together” slogan has not occasioned much comment.

Better together is an adjective phrase [or sometimes, as a commenter below reminds me, an …

by

The Case of the Sinister Buttocks

The common mature musicians also the recent liturgy providers are looking to satisfy additional Herculean, personalised liturgies to tarry fore of the conflict.

 

The story behind this strange sentence was first told by Times Higher Education and has since been summarized (often inaccurately) by more than 7,000 other news sources. Lucy Ferriss alluded to it here on Lingua Franca last week. Its reference to musicians and liturgies might suggest a musical or religious theme. But no, this se…

by

Why Well-Formed Nonsense Doesn’t Matter

I’d like to add one more point on the topic of my post “Computer Says B-Plus.” My modest suggestion was this: If a computer program trained on essays graded by humans could learn enough about the superficial form of academic prose to reliably assign suitable grades to newly presented essays (where “suitable” means “close to what a qualified human grader would have assigned”), that could put a useful tool in the hands of a diligent student who wanted to get anonymous, private, and patient assessm…