All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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Unapplied Linguistics

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I bought a train ticket online from Virgin Trains recently, to get me to St. Neots, nearest station to the site of this conference, where I’m speaking to an association of freelance editors. The follow-up email from Virgin Trains surprised me. The subject line said: “Your St. Neots journey, your way.”

Your St. Neots journey is a well-formed English noun phrase using the proper name St. Neots as an attributive modifier of the noun journey. Trivial to program: They simply had to take Your _____ j…

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It’s Not a Litmus Test

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Last week I praised the late Michael Dummett for making an attempt at defining “noun” syntactically instead of relying on murky semantic intuitions about naming. Below I discuss a very different book (as American as Dummett’s book is painfully British) that does the same thing in a very different way. I will summarize both, and briefly draw an analogy with chemistry.

Dummett defined noun as “principal word in a noun phrase,” and noun phrase as an “expression that can serve as a subject,” and s…

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A Philosopher-Grammarian Gets Something Right

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I have often excoriated the useless traditional definitions of the “parts of speech” presupposed by all usage manuals and dictionaries (see my “Being a Noun,” “Being a Verb,” “Being an Adjective,” etc.). I seldom praise popular grammar books; too many of them are unredeemed horse dung from cover to cover. But I am not implacable: I did have a kind word or two here for Edward D. Johnson’s treatment of the passive. Today I want to make a positive remark about a grammar book by a fine philosopher.

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Bogus Advice for Op-Ed Authors

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Bret Stephens offers in The New York Times (August 25) a guide for beginning op-ed authors: “As a summertime service for readers of the editorial pages who may wish someday to write for them,” he says, “here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the years as an editor, op-ed writer, and columnist.”

And what does this experienced editor, writer, and columnist have to tell us about how to write? (You know how it usually goes: People who can write very nicely are hopeless at explaining how you coul…

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Plain Talk About Public Murder

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What is the point of classifying public mass murders as being (or not being) “terrorism” or “terror related,” as opposed to simply criminal? Why should some maniacs and assassins be accorded the honor of promotion to a higher grade of homicide? There is no generally accepted definition of terrorism, so why are such terminological distinctions even attempted when news about public slaughter is breaking?

The fashion for “lone wolf” low-tech killing sprees in public places came to the pleasant por…

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Didn’t Know I Would Really Go

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Last week Glen Campbell’s six-year descent into Alzheimer’s came to its end. His survival time after diagnosis was roughly the average for that terrible disease. Everyone who enjoys country-flavored popular music or guitar playing will mourn him. But for me the greatest loss is that he was the quintessential musical interpreter of the wonderful poetical and musical work of Jimmy Webb, surely one of the 20th century’s greatest popular songwriters. I think the quality of their collaboration has s…

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

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I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Back to the Real World

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I spent last week in Konstanz, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, at a small conference devoted to a theory of syntax called lexical-functional grammar (LFG). Among the attendees were two language engineers who attend almost every year: Ron Kaplan, co-developer of LFG (with the Stanford syntactician Joan Bresnan) and an industrial computational linguist since the 1980s, and Tracy Holloway King, a 1993 Stanford linguistics Ph.D. who also has a long career in Silicon Valley industrial rese…

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Being a Determinative

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The determinatives of English are the little words that occur at the beginning of many noun phrases, often as a matter of grammatical necessity: words like the indefinite article a and its prevowel alter ego an, the definite article the (notoriously the most frequent word in English running text, as every cryptanalyst knows), and a bunch of other words like all, enough, every, few, little, many, much, no, some, and the demonstratives this and that. And in addition, all of the numerals. (The wor…

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‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’

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I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…