Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Geoffrey Pullum Speaks at UW

I was excited tonight to attend a sold-out lecture at UW's Kane Hall on -- grammar! The Scandal of English Grammar Teaching: Ignorance of Grammar, Damage to Writing Skills, and What We Can Do About It .

But it was a bummer. I didn't walk out until most of the question period was over, but it wasn't easy.

First, it was one of those wretched talks where everything he says is Power Point-ed on screen. He could have emailed it.

Second, he was focussed on trivia. I kept thinking, Who cares? He talked about esoteric rules of grammar and why we should ignore them -- but most of us already do. When was the last time you seriously worried about splitting an infinitive? Or about using "since" to mean "because," when it turns out it's only to be used to show a time relationship?

Third, he was mean. He sneered at EB White and The Elements of Style, a book I have found eminently sensible and funny. Whenever he quoted a White drollery, he willfully ignored the humor and interpreted it as nonsense. He faulted White for his advice on avoiding "they" as a singular pronoun, as if White were writing today instead of mid-20th century, when the so-called universal "he" was acceptable. Pullum's own apparent viewpoint is, if it sounds right, it is right, but when White said something similar, Pullum accused him of being wishy-washy.

Pullum displayed an actual undergrad paper which had been wrongly labeled by a confused TA with passive voice errors. Right, that wasn't passive voice. But just because somebody mis-identifies it doesn't mean passive voice is not a problem.

Set up a straw man, knock him down.

During the question period, a lady raised her hand to share the old chestnut attributed to Churchill, who reportedly said about sentences ending in prepositions, "Up with that I will not put." Okay, it's hard to believe a linguist like Pullum would not have heard it, but Pullum replied that he was so tired of this line that he had suggested in his blog that people who repeated it should be hunted down and stopped. Bet that made her feel great.

My opinion? Dr Pullum is not a happy fella. Does he actually care about communicating?


Florence said...

Oh dear! Sounds like he does more harm than good to the good grammar cause.
OTOH, I get rather fractious over the misuse of loose and lose or bare and bear.

Mary Davies said...

I'm with you there, Florence. And nothing pleases me more than the correct use of lay/lie!

Lacey in the City said...

Wow, he sounds like quite the unhappy man. I'd never heard the "Up with that I will not put", but I kind of laughed a little reading it.

danl said...

Florence and Mary, I have to look up those words every time I write them, and usually end up looking for other ways to say the thing. I've probably written the word "necessary" over 1000 times and still get it wrong, as I did just now. When the verbs in my writing look messed up, I often wonder if I am splitting an infinitive and have to look that up as well. Consider yourselves lucky to have the knack. I think my brother got all there was in my family as he is the English prof.

Florence said...

Confession time: I have to look up sense/sense every time.

Anonymous said...

Nice reading your experience from the lecture. I am an admirer of Mr.Pullum's linguistic work but would agree with you that he's lacking in the manners department. Interestingly, the link to your text is provided in the Wikipedia article about the professor, under the heading "Articles about Pullum". Who would think it wouldn't be representing Mr.Pullum in a favorable light :)
Anyway, I like the blog, keep it up!


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