All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Disputing Linguistic Myths

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I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probabl…

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The Decline of Grammar Education

exam-f-grade-480x250_1024Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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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 Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick cal…

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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…

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If Not Me Then Who?

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“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 …

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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…

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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…

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6 Likes, Liked and Disliked

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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…

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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…