All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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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…

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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…