Category Archives: Grammar

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A Person Who

am-a-simple-person-who-hides-a-thousand-feelings-behind-the-happiest-dGxksS-quoteI heard Barbra Streisand the other day, being interviewed on the radio, describe herself as “a person who likes to live in the moment.” The phrasing made me think of my students, whom I’ll see in two short weeks. We always start our small classes with introductions, and I can no longer count the times I’ve heard, “I’m a person who. … ” To my ear, there’s little difference in basic meaning between I’m a person who likes and I like. Rhetorically, though, the emphasis is different. I decided to dig…

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Machine-to-Human Communication: Nobody Cares

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Ticketless illegals trapped inside tram

I continue to have bad experiences with the machines that purport to talk to me in everyday life. Recently I took one of the new trams to the Edinburgh airport. The computer-controlled doors closed and the tram moved off. As it glided away, a smooth prerecorded voice told us: “Please note that tickets must be purchased, or cards validated, before boarding the tram.” A bit late for that! Couldn’t the system have been programmed to supply that crucial inform…

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What’s the Matter With ‘Me’?

When did we decide that me was ungrammatical? Or if not ungrammatical, then maybe vulgarly self-promoting?

“Sally, who had given the keys to Jim and I, discovered that she was locked out of her office.”

“Congratulations from Susan and I on inheriting that time share!”

“Sadly, the carton of tangelos promised to Mildred, Juan, and I never reached Bushwick.”

The problem is hardly new,  and writers on usage, including Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), have gently admonished us to mind our I’s and m…

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The Linguistics of Assassination Threats

The media have been blandly paraphrasing Donald Trump’s hint about the use of firearms without close reading of the text, and obediently quoting utterly disingenuous spin from supporters as if it were fit to be taken seriously. Four linguistic points are crucially relevant. Three were touched on in a recent Language Log post. Let me review all four somewhat more carefully.

What Trump said in his speech at the rally in Wilmington, N.C., was this (the line breaks roughly correspond with his oddly …

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Reflections on the Trivium

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Daniel M. Hausman opens the introduction to his anthology The Philosophy of Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1984) with a contemptuous statement about economics quoted from a character in a novel by the satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), Crotchet Castle. One character has just referred to “political economy, the science of sciences,” but another, the Rev. Dr. Folliott, demurs, calling it “hyperbarbarous” (there’s a word you don’t see every day!):

“Premises assumed without evidence,…

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‘To Boot’

boot copyA friend was describing an eclectic coffee shop slash clothing store that he had discovered. He added, “They sell shoes to boot!” We laughed at his unintentional word play (shoes to boot — you get it). And then I got distracted. By “to boot.”

It’s a funny expression once you think about it (why a boot?), but that’s not actually what distracted me. I learned a few years ago where the phrase comes from — and that it has nothing to do with footwear. The boot in to boot goes back to the Old English …

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Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting

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In an earlier Lingua Franca post I grumbled about writing advisers who vilify the passive as if it were a dangerous drug (despite using it copiously themselves in private). Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years (for the evidence, see my article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive“). So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good En…

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

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I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …

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Being an Auxiliary

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“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…

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Verb-Forming for Fun and Profit

static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in…