All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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For Want of a Copy Editor the Sense Was Lost

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Yuri Matiyasevitch in 1969

When a Russian mathematician collaborates with a French computer scientist on a paper published by Elsevier in the Netherlands, what language do they choose?

English, of course. Unsuitable it may be, but it’s the unavoidable language of science these days.

And that means Elsevier will need to provide expert editors to assist non-native-speaking authors, right?

Wrong. Elsevier’s two and a half billion dollars of annual revenue (only about a billion of it operating profi…

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How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

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When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

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Image via Wikipedia.org

Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a…

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Recovering My Heritage

RobertBurns

It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l…

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Agency Style, for Your Eyes Only

CIA

Recently, in ways I am not at liberty to divulge, I obtained access to the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. My copy is a hefty PDF, weighing in at around 25 megabytes. I will always be grateful to the brave men and women who got it to me, some at risk of their lives.

A browsable HTML version is said to exist. That would be much easier to consult than an image scan of the hard copy. If you know where there is such a version on the web,…

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Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers

TrayvonMartinHoodedA stranger I will call DL recently emailed me an odious screed pouring contempt and disgust on nonstandard dialects of English. “Speaking broken English is often a sign that the speaker is monolingual in broken English,” it said; and “Sadly, rather than seeking to help such people, some in the linguistics profession see them as savages as noble as those in the Amazon or New Guinea.”

The phrase “some in the linguistics profession” is one more anonymized reference to the possibly mythical creature…

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If Only I Could Tell You

It was a simple question, in an email from a nonlinguist friend: “Which is preferable, if only it were or if only it was?”

Oh dear. People choosing between these alternatives are usually struggling to avoid what they fear might be a mistake. Recalling talk of “the subjunctive” and how important it is, they want to make sure they are not to be classified among the ignorant hordes who wouldn’t know a subjunctive clause from a subduction zone.

She wanted the pure and simple truth. She wasn’t going …

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Where Are the Happiness Boys?

Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow….

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Make American Accents Great Again

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Image by Jenny Chang, courtesy of BuzzFeed*

A recent Daily Briefing email newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education to its subscribers included this snippet of news from a sample of faculty members who mailed in about things they have learned from student feedback on their courses:

Shaun Bowler, a political-science professor at the University of California at Riverside, wrote that he had received a course evaluation reading, “His accent is a problem. Why can’t we have teachers who speaks…

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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…