All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

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Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

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‘Genderqueer’ and ‘Baconsphere’

I remember the moment when I lost my innocence as regards dictionaries. I was a teenager with bookish inclinations (I had been able to read since I was 3 years old), and I was used to being well acquainted with just about every English word I heard or saw in print. But at some point (I no longer remember the context) I encountered, in a clearly respectable source, the word charisma. I had never heard it or seen it. This disturbed me, so I turned to my 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionar…

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Grammar-Test Dispute Resolution

hangulI got an email one morning last week from a complete stranger in South Korea. In the From-line the sender’s name was displayed in hangul (my favorite among the world’s writing systems; I may write about it some other day). The message, in impeccable English, said this (I conceal the sender’s name):

Hello Professor, my name is _____ ____ and I live in the Republic of Korea. Recently I took a test in school and encountered a question that puzzled me. Here it is.

Human beings who are capable of sig…

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Famous Women, Banknotes, and Online Abuse

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Mary Somerville

Oxford, England — Last night, as I dined in Somerville College, my host during a visit to the University of Oxford, a chain of thoughts led me to reflect on the linguistic abuse women endure on social media.

Like Caroline Criado-Perez, for example. She was a victim of highly focused Twitter hostility in 2013.

“Die you worthless piece of crap,” said one tweet. “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do,” wrote a troll; “you’re pathetic, kill yourself befo…

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The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English…

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Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

 

Some of the teachers who discussed the quest…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

spam

You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

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Being an Antecedent

On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t…

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Being a Subjunctive

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Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…

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Sentences I Hope Never to Use

Trouble with the hardwareOne very specific desire I have is to reach the end of my life (a long time from now) without ever having used the phrase working closely with.

Nothing wrong with it syntactically or semantically, but it strikes me as a repellent cliché that drops like uncontrolled saliva from the mouths of self-justifying administrators under press questioning. A question like “What steps has your agency taken since the explosion and fire?” is answered with: “My office has been working closely with emergency au…