All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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The International Phonetic Alphabet

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In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating kn…

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Having a Problem With ‘Having a Problem With’

I have a problem with the expression have a problem with. It always tempts me to think the utterer is admitting to a personal difficulty. But although nothing technically blocks that literal meaning, the phrase has developed another completely idiomatic sense. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus says (in the entry you can see at Cambridge Dictionaries Online) that X has a problem with Y, in informal style, means “X finds Y annoying or offensive.” More briefly and vaguely, i…

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Free Speech, the Rough and the Smooth

building_in_burqa

Free speech attacked yet again. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, angered somehow by the privilege of growing up in peaceful Denmark rather than war-ravaged Palestine, sprayed bullets from an M-95 at random into the Krudttønden cultural center simply because a debate about free speech was being held there. He killed a filmmaker. (Later he killed a volunteer security man at a Bat Mitzvah celebration just in case we had missed his motivation. We get it: Islamist radicals hate Jews just as much as the…

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Comprise Yourself

wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos…

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‘Ongoing Plethora’? Not What It Appears

I was browsing an article about tomato production in the Sacramento Bee (as one does) when my eye lighted upon the phrase ongoing plethora. It struck me as an oddly inept locution.

Ongoing is a dynamic temporal modifier, expressing the continuation of a present event into the future; and plethora is so static, referring simply to a quantity (more than is needed). Talk of an ongoing plethora seemed to me no more coherent than talk of an onrushing glut, or a hoard in progress.

Moreover, the two wo…

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Garage Sociolinguistics

Read the above title aloud before you continue. I have a real problem about pronouncing it. Let me explain. In the fall I was quite unexpectedly forced to move house. my_garage_3 My new home has not only an off-street parking spot but also a standalone structure (pictured at left) intended for storing an automobile (but actually occupied by garden tools, boxes, unused furniture–you know how it goes). Uttering the name for this outbuilding plunges me into a sociolinguistic minefield.

The suffix -age that te…

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The Rules for Essay Exams

bluebksAt my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would proba…

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He (or Possibly Him?) as Head

4622063623_c3a61fda47_oA commenter on a newspaper article about Prince Charles (the opinionated royal destined to inherit the throne under Britain’s hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

 

“With he at its head?” Not “with him at its head”? Let’s face it: The traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in Standard English are simply a myster…

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Renée Zellweger as a Verb? I Don’t Think So.

I’ve written here before about locutions like “art is a verb.” But although I am familiar with the popular nontechnical use of the predicate “is a verb,” I was nonplused by the following remark in Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post opinion piece in November about the cult of youth:*

We’ve always been a culture that worships youth, but it’s been taken to whole new extremes in recent years. Renée Zellweger has become a verb for those women who surgically transform themselves into completely differen…

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George Curme: Orthographic Radical

As I promised last week, let me briefly discuss a further noteworthy fact about an interesting 1914 paper by George O. Curme. When I first saw the paper I thought there was a PDF encoding bug, or my eyes were playing tricks, but not so. It turns out that Curme was a radical reformer in one respect: He published his paper using an extensively revised spelling system. (My quotations from him last week regularized his spellings to current practice.)

Curme was apparently following proposals made ove…