All posts by Geoffrey Pullum


The Unsuitability of English


Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with …


A Postcard From Bilbao


Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio…


Prepositions as Conjunctions, Whales as Fish


Imagine that the national government controlled education down to fine details of what to teach and how to test it, and in your own subject the government required that modern research should be ignored, and unreconstructed 18th-century beliefs should be taught.

Welcome to my world. I’m not talking about the attempts of dull-witted US school boards to push creationism into the science curriculum. I’m talking about a sample grammar test published by the Standards and Testing Agency of the Britis…


Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forg…


Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…


Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which st…


Saying ‘the’ in German


A tiger in the Berlin zoo. Tiger is masculine, though Katze (“cat”) is feminine.

As I have explained, I spent 18 months of my dissolute youth in Germany without learning German. I still feel a little ashamed every time I visit that fine country.

You might think it’s too late for me to fix this: It is widely believed that adult brains lose the language-acquisition knack. But I actually think that’s a cop-out.

Infants have various often-overlooked advantages: cogni…


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Everyday Artificial Stupidity


Monday afternoon. The classroom projector announces: “In 2 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.” After 60 seconds, it changes to: “In 1 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.

Was it really too hard to make that “1 minute”?

Tuesday, early morning. No one else in the building. The elevator wakes as I press the “Up” button. But before the doors open a synthesized voice inside announces: “Lift going up!”

The system has been idle, doors closed and no buttons pressed, all night…


Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering…