All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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English Grammar Day

propriety

This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note…

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

prairiedog

On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

evidence

My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses …

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

strunkpic-dracula

Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I…

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Being a Declarative (or Interrogative, or Imperative, or Exclamative)

dirtyface

Above: a genuine exclamative clause

Grammar books, and hundreds of websites out there, are appallingly confused about statements, questions, orders, and exclamations. Most of the problem lies in their failure to distinguish syntax from semantics. I want to try and sort things out a bit, and provide a little homework exercise.

Clause type is syntactic, not semantic. It shouldn’t be confused with any elemen…

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The Importance of Being a Prince

princephilip

The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these probl…

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Grammar Blunders and Journalistic Discourtesy

Draft design for the new £5 banknote

Nearly every week some journalist calls me, always on a tight schedule, to get a quote for some story about language or grammar. I help whenever I can, despite knowing that most likely they will slightly misrepresent me, and will not alert me when or if the story appears. Last week I helped Katie Morley of The Telegraph with a story about a supposed grammar error on a banknote. In the story that appeared, which ignored my advice, two linguistic errors of hers…

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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,…