All posts by Geoffrey Pullum

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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…

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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…