Category Archives: Grammar


The Third Flaw in the Second Amendment

9EEFE82C-D60F-4F34-B5DA-CFA2325E40E5I was at a department barbecue in California last summer, where conversation had turned to some recent school shooting, and how gun-control legislation can never be enacted because we cannot get round the Second Amendment. A nonacademic visitor suddenly interjected: “Nonsense. You’ve already done it.”

Several professorial heads turned toward her. “How do you mean, we’ve already done it?”

“You’ve already passed laws limiting the Americans’ ownership of arms. Individuals aren’t allowed to have nuc…


Everyday Artificial Stupidity


Monday afternoon. The classroom projector announces: “In 2 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.” After 60 seconds, it changes to: “In 1 minutes the projector will go into standby mode.

Was it really too hard to make that “1 minute”?

Tuesday, early morning. No one else in the building. The elevator wakes as I press the “Up” button. But before the doors open a synthesized voice inside announces: “Lift going up!”

The system has been idle, doors closed and no buttons pressed, all night…


A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…


Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering…


Such Good Friends


Are these friends of Dorothy or friends of Dorothy’s?

On Saturday, Flavia Pennetta of Italy defeated her countrywoman, longtime doubles partner, and onetime roommate Roberta Vinci to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and gracious, but what caught my ear was one sentence, which you can hear at about the 7:58 mark in this YouTube clip:

I could be wrong, but what I think she is saying is, “It’s so nice to play with a friend of my.”

When I heard it, my thought…


Pointless Vocabulary Diversity and Grammatical Structure


Geoff Pullum looked here for a discussion of useless vocabulary and weakened sentence structure in schoolbooks, but didn’t find it. If not here, then where?

I was recently browsing (I’ll tell you why some other time) in my long-neglected copy of The Basis and Essentials of German by Charles Duff and Richard Freund (Thomas Nelson, London, third edition 1945), and a polemical section in the introduction happened to catch my eye. It was a tirade against the practices of language teachers and examin…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


What’s a Passive?

passive-voice-demonstrated-by-zombiesI am not prepared to engage in the Passive Wars. As with any dispute, however, it behooves us to know what the heck it is we’re fighting about. As my colleague Geoffrey Pullum and others have observed, verb constructions described as passive often aren’t any such thing, and the very word passive suggests a kind of prose that lacks get-up-and-go, or whatever it is our sentences ought to have. Here, though, I want to draw our attention to a point of confusion that plagues even the most committed p…


The Structure of University Names

UC Berkeley SealProper names for colleges and universities are of three main types, syntactically. The first, which I’ll call the XU type (for simplicity I limit discussion here to names with the head noun University) has a modifier preceding the head noun, as in Harvard University. The second, the UX type, has a postnominal complement, usually a preposition phrase headed by the preposition of and almost always specifying a location, as in the University of California (UC). The third, the the XUY type, has both…


Crisis Management and Proper Usage

E.B. White

I learned something frightening yesterday. Just by chance, really. I happened to discover that in the syllabus for a course on crisis management at a noted law school (a sound and well-organized course as far as I could judge) students are informed that 60 percent of their grade will be based on a case study, and “because proper English usage is essential to effective communication, a portion of the final grade will be based upon compliance with the principles outlined in The Elements…