All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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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…

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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 …

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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…

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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…

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Computer Says B-Plus

The mouth-filling abuse of Kathleen Anderson’s post on automatic grading (“Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?”) is such a delight to read that I’m almost sorry to confess that I disagree with her.

Anderson was approached by an educational publisher’s representative about a plan to (i) gather a corpus of several thousand student essays, (ii) hire experienced instructors to grade them, and then (iii) apply machine-learning techniques to train a computer program that will grade further ess…

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Grammatical Icing on the Political Cake

Elliott Abrams, former State Department official and adviser to three presidents, has a B.A. from Harvard (1969), an M.S. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (1970), and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (1973). You might expect someone with such a fine education to have a fair command of the most fundamental subject of the classical tripartite road to truth known as the trivium. Not so, however.

The Cease Fire That Broke Itself,” a recent post on h…

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Speaking Out Against Hate Speech (or Not)

usain_boltThe dinner-table conversation touched for a few moments on Usain Bolt, earth’s fastest featherless biped, who’s in Scotland to ensure a win for Jamaica in the men’s sprint relay at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (mission accomplished!). Apropos of nothing more than this brief mention, a 70-year-old guest at my table suddenly remarked with a scowl: “I don’t like Jamaicans.”

The conversation froze. Was this hate speech? The woman seemed serious: Somehow an entire nation of about 2.9 millio…

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Verb Agreement and Hurdling

Sally Pearson, Australian medalist in the 2012 Olympics

It isn’t easy to admit being wrong in front of thousands of readers, but Ben Yagoda took it on the chin.

He had written this clause (I mark it with the asterisk that linguists use to signal ungrammaticality):

*The meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.

The incident reminded me of one of the worst features of the grammar advice so many university writing instructors hand out to students.

Certainly Ben’s sentence was ungrammatica…

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…