All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Tricia

tricia

So many words for dying, deceasing, expiring, succumbing, giving up the ghost, meeting one’s end, passing away, being taken from us, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place, breathing one’s last … If the numerosity of words and phrases for things really correlated with speakers’ degrees of interest in them (a dumb but extremely popular belief I have critiqued before), we would have to assume that English speakers are fascinated by death in all its forms and discuss it all the time in techn…

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They Will Never Forget You …

R-5768580-1402134572-1404.jpegGlenn Frey died in New York on January 18. Viewed from Britain, his death was completely overshadowed by another death in New York eight days earlier, that of David Bowie. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, had been in love with Bowie. You couldn’t tune to the BBC’s Radio 4 (the country’s NPR equivalent) without hearing excerpts of Bowie songs and talk of his endlessly creative self-reinvention. Every radio presenter and journalist seems to have been a lifelong Bowie fan. The Economist did something …

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The Awful Chinese Writing System

biang

Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago.

Don’t hold…

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Grown-Ups Deserve Better

grammar4grownups

Square Peg, part of the Random House group, is a publisher located at 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. Kyle Books is another publisher, headquartered at 192-198 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. The two sets of staff could walk along Vauxhall Bridge Road to have lunch together and discuss upcoming titles. But it looks as if they don’t, because in 2012 they each put out separate books under the same title, Grammar for Grown-Ups.

One was by Craig Shrives, formerly a British military intelligence offi…

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The Quiet Certainty of Antedating

PGWodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse in 1904, a few years before coining “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Recently I mentioned the celebratedly spurious Holmesian nonquotation, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I pointed out that The Yale Book of Quotations proposes as the earliest known source The New York Times issue of Tuesday, April 30, 1911.

But after my post appeared I got an email from Oliver Kamm, a columnist and editorial writer working for The Times of London. He says he remembers seeing the phrase in an earlier s…

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The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound

hound

Fred Shapiro’s magisterial Yale Book of Quotations cites 39 quotations from Arthur Conan Doyle, but surprisingly, only one comes from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

Shapiro does include the most famous Holmes saying of all, the famously spurious “Elementary, my dear Watson!” It is absent from Doyle’s stories, but (Shapiro notes) The New York Times printed it on April 30, 1911. (It was used in later Holmesian stories by other hands, and turn…

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‘People of Color’

It’s slightly surprising that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, still (even in the 2015 Kindle edition) turns its nose up at the phrase people of color:

people of color
Except in direct quotations, the expression is too self-conscious for the news columns. Substitute a term like minorities or, better, refer to specific ethnic groups – black and Hispanic authors, for example.

Some copy editors think the phrase has moved into the mainstream a…

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English and Its Undeserved Good Luck

englangmap

Countries where English is an official or de facto official language

In my post last week I cited a few ways in which English is unsuitable as a global language, and mentioned that its being one anyway is attributable at least in part to undeserved luck.

Of course, it wasn’t all luck. British imperialism and the African slave trade laid the foundations. Even today, with the empire gone, English has about 400 million native speakers, on all seven continents, and about a billion and a half use it …

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The Unsuitability of English

paushuize

Utrecht, Holland— My mission in this pleasant central Holland town: giving a keynote address at the 25th anniversary conference of Sense (originally the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors, now a general professional organization of anglophone editors in the Netherlands) in the palatial surroundings of the beautifully restored 16th-century Paushuize (pictured). Knowing that the editors and translators who belong to Sense are much concerned with …

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A Postcard From Bilbao

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Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio…