All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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And the Other Is a Jellyfish

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last week the British prime minister, the right honorable David Cameron, was trying to enjoy a quiet holiday on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the Islas Canarias, ignoring the lurking press photographers constantly seeking to document his leisure activities. Unfortunately he also ignored the advice of locals about sea swimming, and had a painful encounter with an organism of the subphylum Medusozoa.

Cameron is not very popular in Britain. The right wing sees him…

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A Postcard From Salzburg

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Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguis…

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No Language for Lottie

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People sometimes take my skeptical comments on animal-language news stories (“Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity,” for example) as evidence that I regard animals as inferiors. Jeremy Hawker complained on Language Log that I showed no interest in animal communication, and that linguists “cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language.”

In truth, the only animals I had showed contempt for were the bipedal primates who write science stories for newspapers. Back in …

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Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity

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Potentially communicative bottlenose dolphin
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It appears to have been just bad luck that one British newspaper, The Independent, chose April 1 as the day to publish James Vincent’s science report about a significant animal-to-human communication breakthrough.

I hope it worries animal researchers at least as much as it worries me that I had to do some reading around and cross-checking to be sure that the report wasn’t an Onion-style April Fool’s Day hoax. But I found t…

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Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …

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Undivided by a Common Language

The alleged chasm that separates American from British English is often discussed in highly emotional terms. It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.

People have been exaggerating the trans-Atlantic dialect distinctions ever since Oscar…

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Brevity and Attractiveness: Misreporting Linguistic Science

The Daily Telegraph recently carried a science report suggesting that logorrhea might damage men’s sexual chances. “Why silent types get the girl,” said the headline: “Study finds that men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences are preferred, while men who use verbose language are deemed less attractive.”

Apparently the “Hollywood cliché that the strong, silent type always gets the girl” has been scientifically validated. The most appealing guys are “men who use shorter avera…

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Linguistics qua Affliction

I’d like to tell you something about what it’s like to have a training in linguistics, if I may.

The cheap pine boxes used for shipping bottles of wine from vineyards in France, Italy, and Spain make nice storage boxes when cleaned up and oiled. Several are in use in my home. (I am getting to my point; trust me.) One box bears the name MONTRESOR™, together with some lines in Italian:

Egli me riprese il braccio,
e continuammo il cammino.
- Queste cantine – osservò – sono molto estese.
- I Montres…

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Real-Time Automated Essay Writing?

When I first tried EssayTyper, for just a moment it chilled my blood. Of course, it’s just a little joke; but I hope students everywhere will be sophisticated enough to see that, because a person who was unusually naive, lazy, and ignorant just might mistake it for a computer program that will enable you to type out custom-designed essays on selected academic topics, even topics you know nothing about, even if you can’t type. The EssayTyper home page presents a box saying:

Oh, no! It’s finals we…

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Coming and Going

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The Beatles during the filming of Help!
(image via flickr)

I heard a Brazilian iron-ore magnate speaking on a BBC news program about how he had become so rich, and he said that at one point “the price of iron ore came from $10 a ton to $180 a ton.” I realized that there was a subtle mistake in English usage here: Even if the price is still $180 now, we do not say that the price came from $10 to $180; we say the price went from $10 to $180. But why?

Come is standardly used for motion (including me…