All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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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…

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Mandarin Myths

timesexthingSeenox (it bills itself as “the ultimate time waster website,” so you have been warned) offers yet another compilation of signs in China with hilariously botched English translations. An obscene instruction about what to do with vegetables; menus listing “roasted husband” and “fresh crap”; a portable “EXECUTION IN PROGRESS” sign for janitors to use; 40 of the usual suspects are there. But they are introduced by a passage containing two myths about Mandarin Chinese. One is that Mandarin is “the m…

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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Grammatical Shades of Grey

shutterstock_138339137I responded cautiously when my nonlinguist partner, staring at the wording on a supermarket yogurt container, cried “That’s wrong!”

The words on the label promised that the yogurt was made of cow’s milk. “That’s wrong!” she said; “This yogurt didn’t come from just one cow!” It ought to be spelled cows’ milk, with the genitive plural, she insisted.

We happened to have a carton of a different brand of yogurt in the refrigerator, so we could double-check. Sure enough, down in the small-print list o…

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Mere W*rds

In a post on May 19 I contrasted two cases of language use in the British newspapers recently: an objectionable word in an old record played by a DJ (he lost his job), and sexist remarks and attitudes expressed in office emails by a top executive (he wasn’t even disciplined by his board).

I suggested that people had the wrong priorities: Use of taboo words was being treated as more significant than expression of objectionable attitudes. But lately I am beginning to think that the general public …

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New Book, Same Old Grammar-Babble

DSC_5529-2A complimentary copy of a popular book on grammar appeared in my mailbox recently, with a personal note from the authors. They express firm agreement with views of mine that they had seen in Tom Chivers’s article about me, and they say they hope I’ll like their book.

I wish I could respond positively. I don’t want to hurt the authors’ feelings, or condemn a well-intentioned project, or look a gift horse in the mouth. I wanted it to be good: I long to see a popular book on English grammar that ge…

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The Vague Main Clause of the Second Amendment

secondamendment

I have often reflected on the problematic vagueness of the initial absolute adjunct clause of the Second Amendment. Reading about yet another university massacre last week, the topic came to mind again. But this time I realized that the worst thing about the amendment may be the main-clause syntax.

The absolute adjunct clause (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state”) has been much discussed. Its comma is extraneous under modern punctuation rules (an unmotiva…

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The Politics of Taboo Words

sunTwo currently hot news items in Britain involve public figures using controversial language with political consequences. The Chronicle follows strict New York Times style rules about vulgarity, so I must use caution in giving some of the details about the cases I want to contrast.

The first concerns a radio DJ who made the mistake of playing the wrong version of a song: a 1932 recording with lyrics containing a word that today is regarded as an offensive racial slur (though in 1932 it wasn’t). O…

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Bait-and-Switch Comparisons

I recently asked readers to think of a technical term for a kind of rhetorical structure for witticisms like the classic lawyer joke: “Q. What’s the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? A. One is a bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking scavenger, and the other is a fish.” It’s very familiar. But, I wondered, is there a suitably exact rhetorical technical term for the device?

I got some interesting suggestions in the comments. Some felt far too general: Gavin Moodie suggested counterpoint; a commen…