All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Truly Incompetent English

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Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

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A Certain Closeness

Do you see any grammatical mistake in the sentence “He had developed a closeness to his recent suffering”? A classics teacher married to an author wrote to me a while ago to ask me this:

I am doing some editing on my wife’s new book (really, it’s just an excuse for me to get to read it a few times!), and she has a fairly consistent usage that Word (and the Internet) find to be completely unacceptable.

His wife was using phrases like a closeness, and Word was reporting that the first of those wor…

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…

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An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictiona…

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On Writing Well About Passives

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“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

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Swinging for His Supper

Jeremy Clarkson, suspended from “Top Gear”

The Chronicle’s strict profanity policies, as I explained last year, bar mentioning offensive or obscene words, even in linguistic discussions where the details are crucial. Asterisk-respelling tricks are unapproved under the New York Times style guidelines that we follow. But let me try, despite having my linguistic hands tied behind my back, to tell you a bit about the latest high-profile free-speech crisis in Britain’s media.

Jeremy Clarkson is the l…

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Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

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The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…

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The International Phonetic Alphabet

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In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating kn…

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Having a Problem With ‘Having a Problem With’

I have a problem with the expression have a problem with. It always tempts me to think the utterer is admitting to a personal difficulty. But although nothing technically blocks that literal meaning, the phrase has developed another completely idiomatic sense. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus says (in the entry you can see at Cambridge Dictionaries Online) that X has a problem with Y, in informal style, means “X finds Y annoying or offensive.” More briefly and vaguely, i…

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Free Speech, the Rough and the Smooth

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Free speech attacked yet again. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, angered somehow by the privilege of growing up in peaceful Denmark rather than war-ravaged Palestine, sprayed bullets from an M-95 at random into the Krudttønden cultural center simply because a debate about free speech was being held there. He killed a filmmaker. (Later he killed a volunteer security man at a Bat Mitzvah celebration just in case we had missed his motivation. We get it: Islamist radicals hate Jews just as much as the…