All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English…

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Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

 

Some of the teachers who discussed the quest…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

spam

You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

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Being an Antecedent

On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t…

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Being a Subjunctive

buddyHolly

Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…

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Sentences I Hope Never to Use

Trouble with the hardwareOne very specific desire I have is to reach the end of my life (a long time from now) without ever having used the phrase working closely with.

Nothing wrong with it syntactically or semantically, but it strikes me as a repellent cliché that drops like uncontrolled saliva from the mouths of self-justifying administrators under press questioning. A question like “What steps has your agency taken since the explosion and fire?” is answered with: “My office has been working closely with emergency au…

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Scalia’s Linguistic Acumen

220px-Antonin_Scalia,_SCOTUS_photo_portraitSometimes (in fact quite often) Mark Liberman says things at Language Log that make me want to paint them on the side of the barn. Here is a recent example:

It’s always been a source of wonder to me that (law) code, on which so much depends, is written without any means of bracketing to specify scope, and without even an unambiguous set of conventions for default binding in cases where scope is not explicitly marked. If the universe suddenly shifted so that computer code was written this way, mo…

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Being an Interjection

facebookemoji

Facebook was in the news last week for introducing a choice of five emoji you can use to tag a post or other online object that inspires some emotion in you. Formerly, your only recourse was the thumbs-up icon of the Like button: You could tag an item to say “Like!,” which might mean you agreed with it, you were amused by it, you were moved emotionally by it, you hope others will look at it, or any number of other things. But now, if you hover the mouse cursor over the Like button, you get a ch…

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Leaps in the Dark: the Discourse of Brexit

EUJust when you need maximally careful use of the uniquely human gift of language, everything goes to hell and people start throwing clichés around like ninja stars. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has just called a referendum for June 23 in which the electorate will address this question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

And immediately everything is slogans and fearmongering and soundbites and similes.

The wording of the questi…

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Polysemy and Maturity

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 4.03.36 PM

Polysemous pachyderms (Tontan Travel)

Harvard is considering whether the long-established term “House Master” should be changed, because a group of Latino students has protested that it reminds them of the tradition of slave masters.

Professor Steven Pinker, of the same parish, made a Twitter comment on the controversy that has been retweeted hundreds of times already and deserves to be:

We should be teaching students: 1 All words have >1 meaning.. 2. Mature adults resist taking pointless offens...