All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor

ChinoDino

Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In thi…

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Adverbs and United Airlines

flythefriendlyskiesYou might think nothing more remained to be said about United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to St Louis on Sunday, April 9. Not so. The coverage left key facts of the case misreported, and the most interesting linguistic aspects completely unnoticed.

Sean Davis at The Federalist sensibly dug out United’s contract of carriage and read it. But even he failed to note how bad its use of English is.

The volitional subclass of adverbs used as act-related adjuncts are the adverbs like accidentally,…

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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “T…

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The World’s Greatest Grammarian

SunshineBeach

Professor Rodney Desmond Huddleston, the world’s greatest expert on the grammar of English, woke beside the South Pacific Ocean today on his 80th birthday. He was, I’m sure, up as usual by 3:30 a.m. (Brisbane time; that’s 1:30 p.m. the previous day in Washington, D.C., so he’s way ahead of Lingua Franca time), and will have gone on his standard predawn five-mile hike in the Noosa Heads National Park a few hundred yards from his home. Then he will have had breakfast, and a postbreakfast nap (put…

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The Team Sat in Its Hotel Drinking Its Beers

Lucky BarWhen Business Insider recently published a listicle entitled “21 common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them,” naturally the old chestnut about its being an error to use they (or their or them) “as a singular pronoun” was included.

It repeats a familiar mistake by saying “as a singular pronoun.” Nobody uses they as a singular pronoun. The word is grammatically plural, as you can see from the form of a present-tense verb that has they as subject: You get They are responsible (as with Women are …

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Word-Processing Misery

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John Cleese

In a long-forgotten Monty Python sketch, John Cleese is driving a panel truck for the BBC. “I wanted to be in program planning,” he remarks acidly to a colleague, “But unfortunately I have a degree.”

I wanted to work in linguistics. But unfortunately personal computing was invented, and I ended up an amateur software engineer specializing in file format conversion and workarounds for word-processor bugs. I try to do a bit of linguistics in my spare time.

Left to my own devices, I wou…

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Data Mining for Personally Targeted Politics

Brexit vote mapRegular Lingua Franca readers may recall that I am a skeptic about both machine intelligence and the dangers of computers invading our privacy. But do not imagine that I am dismissive of all developments in the fields bracketed under the misnomer “artificial intelligence”: Some of the claims made about what computers can do are true, even a little scary.

I know I mocked the pathetic artificial stupidity exhibited by the devices that purport to communicate linguistically with us. I dissed 2013-vi…

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Once More Into the Fray, Pluto (and Ixion, Among Others)

Pluto itself (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

Oh, no: The lexical-semantic battle over Pluto is on again! I learn from space.com that a research group is going to try to get a new geophysical definition of the word planet approved by the International Astronomical Union, and is drafting it in a way that will allow Pluto to count as a planet once more. (It lost that status in 2006 and was reclassified as a dwarf planet.)

The geophysical definition would be (roughly) that a planet (i) weighs less than a star, (…

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Still Looking for a Triple

embeddedReading an article about the latest apparent murder by the North Korean royal family in this week’s Economist (February 18, 2017), I came upon this remarkable example of English hypotaxis:

Kim Kwang-jin, a defector who once worked in North Korea’s “royal court” economy, says that even if rumours that China had hoped to install Jong-nam if Jong-un fell from power are far-fetched, China would nonetheless have seen Jong-nam as useful leverage.

Hypotaxis is packing clauses inside other clauses as su…