All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe

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Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th…

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The Structure of University Names

UC Berkeley SealProper names for colleges and universities are of three main types, syntactically. The first, which I’ll call the XU type (for simplicity I limit discussion here to names with the head noun University) has a modifier preceding the head noun, as in Harvard University. The second, the UX type, has a postnominal complement, usually a preposition phrase headed by the preposition of and almost always specifying a location, as in the University of California (UC). The third, the the XUY type, has both…

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Crisis Management and Proper Usage

E.B. White

I learned something frightening yesterday. Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and “because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements…

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Etymology Is Not Destiny

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Edward Heath, the latest of several deceased politicians alleged to have been pedophiles.

The many recent allegations of sexual crimes against children by famous figures in entertainment and politics have led to extensive discussions in the British press concerning what they refer to as pedophilia (or paedophilia in the usual British spelling). What a strange word. The Greek element -phil- is called a combining form in English grammar: not usable alone, and neither a suffix nor a prefix, but use…

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Unspeakable Drug Names

Capecitabine (C15H22FN3O6) is an oncologically important chemotherapeutic prodrug. It has a trade name: Xeloda (pronounced zee--da, I presume). And it’s just as well, because capecitabine is a train wreck of a name. The normal principles for interpreting English orthography come nowhere near determining even an approximate pronunciation. Try saying capecitabine aloud before you read on. How would you pronounce it, for example, in a lecture? Do you dare to even hazard a guess?

The word could be…

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What Language Learning Cannot Be

jevonsI noticed that W. Stanley Jevons’s remarkably successful little book Elementary Lessons in Logic (reprinted annually for decades after its appearance in 1870) uses language learning to illustrate two ways of acquiring or transmitting knowledge (see Lesson XXIV, “On Method, Analysis and Synthesis”). One is the method of instruction:

A student, for example, in learning Latin, Greek, French, German, or any well-known language, receives a complete Grammar and Syntax setting forth the whole of the pr…

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The Fringe Is Coming to Town

castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

No, what I …

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What ‘One’ Means to a Linguist

1019312234_43860b93be_bIt’s unsettling for a linguist to find serious doubt being expressed in a quality newspaper not just about whether one kilogram means “one kilogram” (it seems the standard kilogram, a cylinder of platinum and iridium kept under lock and key in France, may have been losing a tiny fraction of its weight), but also about whether one means “one.” Yet according to The Independent (July 15), a recent court judgment casts doubt on the latter.

ConvaTec, a medical products company, patented a wound dress…

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Human Resources and Thought Control

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George Orwell

Several correspondents sent me links to James Gingell’s recent Guardian article about what George Orwell would have thought about today’s human-resources professionals. Gingell sees HR professionals as evil slimeballs. He thinks Orwell would have deplored their “bureaucratic repression” and hated “their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.” (I note in passing, without dwelling on the poi…

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Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

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Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…