All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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For Want of an Oxford Comma

rickman

The minor yet highly controversial issue of the Oxford Comma (or serial comma) arises solely in one very restricted context: what is known in classical grammar as a monosyndetic multiple coordination, where there is just a single coordinator (a word like and or or) before the last of three or more coordinated items. Should you write You need celery, apples, walnuts, and grapes (which has the so-called Oxford comma), or alternatively You need celery, apples, walnuts and grapes?

In binary coordin…

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‘Arrival’: Just Say Yes

louisebanks

Spoiler alert: I will make no attempt to avoid revealing plot points as I discuss the celebrated recent science-fiction movie Arrival. First, I figure if you’re destined to see it you’ve probably already seen it. And second, it’s actually too deep to spoil, and the whole theme of the story suggests that it couldn’t be spoiled anyway.

Joe Fruehwald organized a group outing to see Arrival in Edinburgh, and the linguists who attended were all agreed on one thing: Seeing a movie give any kind of de…

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The Unoriginality of Orwell’s Critique of Language

PoliticsandtheEnglishLanguageI had always imagined that the ideas Orwell so tediously overstates and disingenuously defends in his megafamous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL), though impractical and dishonest, were original with him. But I discovered by accident recently that they aren’t.

The best-known theme of P&EL concerns how long words encourage intellectual laziness, cloaking thought in airy abstraction and lending a polysyllabic patina of respectability to obnoxious political and legal…

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Sexual-Abuse Gangs and Racism

Back in August, a huge public inquiry into child sexual abuse in Britain lost its third leader when Judge Lowell Goddard resigned as chair. The Times reported her as having remarked that the reason Britain has so many pedophiles is “because it has so many Asian men.” That assertion (which she firmly denies making) has been condemned as racist. I wish people would use the dictionary a bit more. racism_entry Racism is a thesis — the single greatest ideological evil in human history, in my view. It holds tha…

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Witticisms, Plagiarism, and Language History

Not the originator

Not the originator.

My post last week, wondering who first dismissed the oboe as an ill wind, elicited a slew of interesting comments and private emails. Let me try to pull all the information together in a more organized form.

Jeff DeMarco led off the comments, noting that the oboe jibe turned up in Laurence McKinney’s humorous poetic introduction to the orchestra, People of Note. (That’s a pun. Geddit?) Published January 1, 1940, that book would appear to predate “Anatole of Paris,” the song…

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An Ill Wind That No One Blows Good

call_it_a_clarinet

It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently app…

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Orgies, Convoys, and Precision in Word Meanings

convoy-line-2 Apropos of whether the web is changing English, I discussed Choire Sicha’s writing, but not Katy Waldman’s example of it, which concerned the definition of orgy. Sicha riffs humorously on how many participants there must be, and I was reminded of two important but oft-forgotten facts about word meanings.

The first is simply that meanings change swiftly and radically over just a few decades. Fifty years ago dictionaries said orgies were ceremonies honoring ancient Greek deities with ecstatic sin…

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The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…

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The Anglophone Millstone

sprechen

I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…

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To Seek Out New Vowels …

vowels_in_mouth

Part of my teaching this semester (with my colleague Alice Turk) involves an exploration of space: the space of the remarkable array of speech sounds humans can produce. Consider just the vowel space, for example. Phoneticians map the infinite space of possible vowel qualities by reference to a set of reference points at the edge of vowel space: the final frontier. They’re known as the primary cardinal v…