Category Archives: Grammar

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Disputing Linguistic Myths

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I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probabl…

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Passivity and Other Afflictions

call-to-actionLast week, I suggested that we got ourselves into trouble trying to distinguish between disinterest and uninterest because multiple meanings of the word interest put both prefixes at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing bright, clear lines of meaning. Now I’ll wade into muddier waters. Much ink has been spilt over the use or abuse of the passive voice in English. I’d like to propose two notions that, held in balance, might decrease our level of apoplexy:

  1. The term passive voice is a term of a…
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The Decline of Grammar Education

exam-f-grade-480x250_1024Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was… The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick cal…

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MooT Pursuits

MooTI have a soft spot for people who invent games, especially games with words. And by way of some random keystroke, I found myself on the mailing list of Jon Steeves, inventor of MooT, “the game of semantics, etymology, and grammar.” For almost two years now, I’ve received random emails with questions like In Greek it means “rules of the belly,” whereas in English it denotes “the art of eating and drinking well.” What word is it?*

red_wine_bottle_48679Finally, I caved and got a copy of the game. Two weekends ago, on a…

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The Giants Won the Pennant

On Thursday, in the National League Championship Series game between San Francisco Giants and the St. Lous Cardinals, Giants outfiender Travis Ishikawa came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Jon Miller was announcing the game on the Giants’ radio affiliate. “Now the stretch,” Miller said. “Here it comes. There’s a drive, deep into right field, way back there. Goodbye! A home run. For the game. And for the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and Travis Ishikawa is being clobbered a…

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Looking at American Speech

If you read Lingua Franca, you might be among the select few who want to know what is really going on with our language, as opposed to the many who mainly want to change it to their liking. Nothing wrong with the latter, except that it’s like wishing for the good old days when chemistry involved just four easy-to-remember elements—earth, air, fire, water—as opposed to the notion promulgated nowadays by professional chemists that there are more than a hundred elements, while the original four…

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If Not Me Then Who?

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“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

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Truly, Madly, Deeply Avoiding Adverbs

LY-Adverbs1Pity the lowly adverb. Like the adenoids (I had mine removed, at age 4) or the appendix, it is regarded by rule-mongers as unnecessary, left over from a time when the body of language needed this now-useless organ to process niceties of language that we now handle by way of verbs. Or nouns. Or the effectively placed period.

Only two classes of people, it seems, stick up for the adverb: young adults and members of the bar. A proposal from a student almost never offers to read and scrutinize a par…