All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…

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Diary of a Visiting Speaker

kielmap

The audience at a talk sees the visiting speaker ushered into the room to check the connection dongle for the projector and greet a few faculty acquaintances in the front row. A brief introduction, a 50-minute talk, and a small reception and perhaps a hosted meal. Two or three hours, all expenses paid. Easy work?

Not exactly. For the speaker, the experience is quite a bit longer. I have about a dozen lecture trips this year, the most recent at the Christian Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. …

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Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

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

passives

“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…