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Pullum rides again

January 26, 2014

Geoffrey K. Pullum is an eminent Scottish-English-American linguist. He taught at UC Santa Cruz for many years, and is now Professor of General Linguistics and Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. He is a coauthor (with Rodney Huddleston) of the controversial (and very expensive) Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), described in Wikipedia as “a book that presents a comprehensive descriptive grammar of English,” and a contributor to Language Log, an online forum of linguists who, scientists that they are, can be generally classified as descriptivists. That is, they seek to describe language as it is actually used and not prescribe how it should be used. One of the categories of posts on Language Log is in fact called “prescriptivist poppycock,” and Geoff Pullum’s posts are frequently filed under it. He can get on his high horse and be quite vituperative when writing about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which he has called “that vile little book”) or George Orwell’s  essay Politics and the English Language, and nothing angers him more than these authors’ advice to “avoid the passive.”

Well, maybe something does anger him more: it’s when writers (especially journalists), possibly brought up on this advice without fully understanding it, apply the word passive — calling it passive construction, passive voice, or even passive tense(!)to discourse in which the verbs are not actually in what grammatically is known as the passive voice. In a post published two days ago, he cited one journalist’s reference to a passage in another journalist’s article as “a lovely passive construction” and then proceeded to analyze the passage in question, finding that of the 23 verbs contained in it not one was passive. He has written an essay titled Fear and loathing of the English Passive in which the matter is discussed (see, I fear not the passive!) at length.

But to all appearances Geoff Pullum, who seems to have a very good sense of humor, doesn’t see the irony in a descriptivist like him railing against language change. The fact is that, at least in journalistic language, passive seems to have morphed from its grammatical meaning to something vaguely associated with a relatively impersonal form of discourse, modeled perhaps on the Nixonian “mistakes were made” (which actually is in the passive). It so happens that English has no regular form of impersonal construction: it has neither the impersonal pronoun like on in French or man in German, nor does it have the subjectless reflexive like Spanish, Italian or Slavic, so that the English equivalent of on parle français, man spricht deutsch, se habla español, говорится по-русски and the like is English [is] spoken. And so it seems that a generalization of passive to mean ‘impersonal’ is natural language evolution, somewhat like the way gridlock (originally the kind of traffic blockage that happens in a street grid when stopped vehicles obstruct intersections) has come to mean any kind of traffic jam, as when, in connection with the Fort Lee lane-closure scandal, we have heard about “gridlock on the bridge.”

But I have not heard any complaints from traffic engineers about media misuse of the term gridlock.  Nor do I hear kvetching form mathematicians, astronomers, physicists or seismologists when people use least common denominator, light-year, quantum leap or epicenter with meanings quite remote from their technical ones. Perhaps this is because specialists in technical or scientific disciplines are aware that common language is in a different realm from technical language. Mathematicians, for example, have borrowed words like field, group or ring and given them technical meanings, and to mechanicians (like me) the words forcepower, strength and energy (which are virtually synonymous in ordinary language) have precise and distinct meanings.

It seems to be different with linguists, perhaps because they deal with language per se. They seem to forget that the word linguist itself originally meant ‘someone who knows several languages’ (thus in Shakespeare and still in popular use as well as in official use in the armed forces) and resent its being applied to anyone but them. Linguistics has also given grammar a meaning far more restrictive (though they don’t always agree on what that meaning is) than what it originally meant: the study of a formal literary language, typically for the benefit of learners of said language who don’t speak it (because it’s either a dead language or a foreign one). And traditionally books on grammar, even those of living languages (beginning with Nebrija‘s grammar of Spanish), have dealt with such things as orthography and punctuation; it’s not a coincidence that the word is related to the Greek word for writing. But when people refer to spelling or punctuation mistakes as grammatical ones, linguists like Geoff Pullum get peeved.

Geoff Pullum, alone among the Language Log contributors, does not allow comments to his posts. He often displays an I’m-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrong attitude, as in his recent defense of CGEL’s  categorization of because as preposition (everyone else considers it a conjunction). And so I expect him to go on railing about misuse of passive or grammatical and other sins against linguistics. I don’t mind: he writes entertainingly, and he can own up to mistakes (as he did today). Go get ’em, Geoff!