All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Why Well-Formed Nonsense Doesn’t Matter

I’d like to add one more point on the topic of my post “Computer Says B-Plus.” My modest suggestion was this: If a computer program trained on essays graded by humans could learn enough about the superficial form of academic prose to reliably assign suitable grades to newly presented essays (where “suitable” means “close to what a qualified human grader would have assigned”), that could put a useful tool in the hands of a diligent student who wanted to get anonymous, private, and patient assessm…

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Computer Says B-Plus

The mouth-filling abuse of Kathleen Anderson’s post on automatic grading (“Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?”) is such a delight to read that I’m almost sorry to confess that I disagree with her.

Anderson was approached by an educational publisher’s representative about a plan to (i) gather a corpus of several thousand student essays, (ii) hire experienced instructors to grade them, and then (iii) apply machine-learning techniques to train a computer program that will grade further ess…

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Grammatical Icing on the Political Cake

Elliott Abrams, former State Department official and adviser to three presidents, has a B.A. from Harvard (1969), an M.S. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (1970), and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (1973). You might expect someone with such a fine education to have a fair command of the most fundamental subject of the classical tripartite road to truth known as the trivium. Not so, however.

The Cease Fire That Broke Itself,” a recent post on h…

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Speaking Out Against Hate Speech (or Not)

usain_boltThe dinner-table conversation touched for a few moments on Usain Bolt, earth’s fastest featherless biped, who’s in Scotland to ensure a win for Jamaica in the men’s sprint relay at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (mission accomplished!). Apropos of nothing more than this brief mention, a 70-year-old guest at my table suddenly remarked with a scowl: “I don’t like Jamaicans.”

The conversation froze. Was this hate speech? The woman seemed serious: Somehow an entire nation of about 2.9 millio…

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Verb Agreement and Hurdling

Sally Pearson, Australian medalist in the 2012 Olympics

It isn’t easy to admit being wrong in front of thousands of readers, but Ben Yagoda took it on the chin.

He had written this clause (I mark it with the asterisk that linguists use to signal ungrammaticality):

*The meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.

The incident reminded me of one of the worst features of the grammar advice so many university writing instructors hand out to students.

Certainly Ben’s sentence was ungrammatica…

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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Mandarin Myths

timesexthingSeenox (it bills itself as “the ultimate time waster website,” so you have been warned) offers yet another compilation of signs in China with hilariously botched English translations. An obscene instruction about what to do with vegetables; menus listing “roasted husband” and “fresh crap”; a portable “EXECUTION IN PROGRESS” sign for janitors to use; 40 of the usual suspects are there. But they are introduced by a passage containing two myths about Mandarin Chinese. One is that Mandarin is “the m…

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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Grammatical Shades of Grey

shutterstock_138339137I responded cautiously when my nonlinguist partner, staring at the wording on a supermarket yogurt container, cried “That’s wrong!”

The words on the label promised that the yogurt was made of cow’s milk. “That’s wrong!” she said; “This yogurt didn’t come from just one cow!” It ought to be spelled cows’ milk, with the genitive plural, she insisted.

We happened to have a carton of a different brand of yogurt in the refrigerator, so we could double-check. Sure enough, down in the small-print list o…