All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Machine-to-Human Communication: Nobody Cares

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Ticketless illegals trapped inside tram

I continue to have bad experiences with the machines that purport to talk to me in everyday life. Recently I took one of the new trams to the Edinburgh airport. The computer-controlled doors closed and the tram moved off. As it glided away, a smooth prerecorded voice told us: “Please note that tickets must be purchased, or cards validated, before boarding the tram.” A bit late for that! Couldn’t the system have been programmed to supply that crucial inform…

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The Linguistics of Assassination Threats

The media have been blandly paraphrasing Donald Trump’s hint about the use of firearms without close reading of the text, and obediently quoting utterly disingenuous spin from supporters as if it were fit to be taken seriously. Four linguistic points are crucially relevant. Three were touched on in a recent Language Log post. Let me review all four somewhat more carefully.

What Trump said in his speech at the rally in Wilmington, N.C., was this (the line breaks roughly correspond with his oddly …

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In the Phonetic Jungle

rabbit_redux

A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “…

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Reflections on the Trivium

trivium

Daniel M. Hausman opens the introduction to his anthology The Philosophy of Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1984) with a contemptuous statement about economics quoted from a character in a novel by the satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), Crotchet Castle. One character has just referred to “political economy, the science of sciences,” but another, the Rev. Dr. Folliott, demurs, calling it “hyperbarbarous” (there’s a word you don’t see every day!):

“Premises assumed without evidence,…

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Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting

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In an earlier Lingua Franca post I grumbled about writing advisers who vilify the passive as if it were a dangerous drug (despite using it copiously themselves in private). Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years (for the evidence, see my article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive“). So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good En…

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

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The Worst Form of Government

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Robert Briffault

The British people’s referendum vote on June 23 proposed (by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%) that the country should leave the world’s largest single market and embark on an unpredictable standalone future for which there had been no political or economic planning. A Churchillian remark crossed my mind immediately: the one about democracy being the worst form of government apart from every other one that had ever been tried.

The country’s politics fell apart straight away. As…

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Being an Auxiliary

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“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…

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Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course…

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A Postcard From Schleswig-Holstein

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing s…