All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

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The Worst Form of Government

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Robert Briffault

The British people’s referendum vote on June 23 proposed (by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%) that the country should leave the world’s largest single market and embark on an unpredictable standalone future for which there had been no political or economic planning. A Churchillian remark crossed my mind immediately: the one about democracy being the worst form of government apart from every other one that had ever been tried.

The country’s politics fell apart straight away. As…

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Being an Auxiliary

primes

“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…

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Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course…

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A Postcard From Schleswig-Holstein

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing s…

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Direct Objects or Lack Thereof

71pLyLC3SELAs a memento of my visit to the London offices of The Economist I took away a printed copy of the 2013 edition of the magazine’s style book. Its 200 sides of heavy, high-gloss paper are spiral-bound to remain open on the desk at the user’s elbow: The book is intended for daily use.

It has a personality; you can sense it. Take a look, for example, at the beginning of the entry headed “transitive and intransitive verbs”:

The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is often now disreg…

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Liars and Snakes: Plumbing New Rhetorical Depths

Boris Johnson visit to the USA - Day 3

Boris Johnson: Trump with a thesaurus?

Britain is now deep into campaigning for the referendum on whether to back out of the political and economic union defining the world’s largest single market. After about eight years here I still feel mostly like one of the many Americans in Edinburgh, and our focus is mainly on the U.S. presidential election campaign; but the referendum struggle is capturing ever more of a share of the news media here.

I came to hate referendums (referenda, if you insist o…

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Triciaisms

tricia_smiling

It would have been Tricia’s 49th birthday today, if cancer had not brought a premature end to her life back in January.*

My thoughts are still of Tricia for several minutes of every hour and several hours of every day. And not just of her dynamic physical presence — her flashing eyes and long legs and lust for life — but of her fast and irreverent wit, and her wonderful way with words.

Often her humor was dark. She would joke even about her own impending death. She knew her cancer was terminal,…

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Syntactic Self-Harm on St. James’s Street

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Economist Plaza, St. James’s Street, London

I love and admire The Economist; I itch for my copy to arrive each Saturday morning. But I have sometimes had to criticize the grammatical stipulations of that august magazine’s editors. At one point I actually ventured the opinion that they were deliberately trying to annoy me by using phrasings that they knew I would hate (Language Log, September 4, 2015). But I recently had a chance to discover whether such paranoia had any basis. Let me explain.

My…

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‘Genderqueer’ and ‘Baconsphere’

I remember the moment when I lost my innocence as regards dictionaries. I was a teenager with bookish inclinations (I had been able to read since I was 3 years old), and I was used to being well acquainted with just about every English word I heard or saw in print. But at some point (I no longer remember the context) I encountered, in a clearly respectable source, the word charisma. I had never heard it or seen it. This disturbed me, so I turned to my 1951 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionar…