In the News: Professor Pullum’s Five Points

An article written by Tom Chivers for The Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, has recently gone viral—partially, no doubt, because of Mr. Chivers’ eye-catching title: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” His subtitle reads, “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.”

The article has been quoted and shared on several language websites I follow and has been linked on the linguistics and grammar subreddits on The responses to the article have been quite predictable: readers are all ready to take up their metaphorical swords and shields and go to war, whether they stand for grammar by the book or an ever-evolving language.

As you read in my first post on this blog, I would much rather camp out in the middle or, better yet, not be on the battlefield at all, drawing up peace terms in an undisclosed neutral location. Although Mr. Chivers makes a clear case against “grammar Nazis” in his title, I think his interview with Professor Pullum reveals a less combative point of view I can stand behind.

Professor Geoffrey Pullum is one of the most famous linguists in the world. He co-authored The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in 2002, a new English grammar book for the twenty-first century. He also regularly contributes to Language Log, a very popular linguistics blog. He’s currently the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Basically, he knows his stuff.

Professor Pullum vehemently argues for descriptive grammar. He makes several key points I would like to discuss.

Point One: Standard English is necessary for all speakers of the language to communicate effectively.

“’It’s entirely to the benefit of all of us that newspapers’ editorials are written in Standard English, and that we can all speak it in situations such as business and air traffic control, and understand each other.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed. Standard English is important to preserve because it gives us all common ground. Mr. Chivers adds that Standard English is vital to success in the business world, and children should learn it as a key to a better life. While that may be important, the bigger issue here lies in the idea of a standard language. Different dialects of English develop everywhere, from urban Detroit to the Caribbean to Scotland to Australia to India—they aren’t all the same. If we don’t teach Standard English to children (as opposed to their regional dialect), we are limiting them to their own geographical location and diminishing their potential for successful interaction with other parts of the world. If English truly is a lingua franca (which, of course, is up for debate), a strong grasp of how it works and how to use it to effectively communicate ideas is absolutely necessary.

Point Two: Grammatical rules come down to personal preference, and you shouldn’t try to impose your preferences on others.

“I ask him if he has any personal dislikes, which aren’t ‘wrong’ but which annoy him. ‘I have bugbears. But I like to think I have a healthy attitude towards them: they’re my bugbears, so I regulate my own usage, not yours. For example, I’ve always disliked the term “people of colour”. I refused to use it even when I was a graduate dean working on affirmative action in the Eighties in California.’ The key, he says, is to realise that your preferences—using ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’ when referring to plural objects, for instance—are just preferences, and claiming that they’re ‘wrong’ is false.”

My Thoughts:

This sounds nice in theory, but it seems pretty impractical to me. Everyone who uses the English language imposes preferences on others simply by using it. If I say “fewer cookies” rather than “less cookies,” I’m making it quite obvious what I prefer. It’s hard for me not to condemn “less cookies” as wrong, because—well, according to everything I know about grammar, it’s wrong. The structure of English, in this case, already makes perfect sense and there isn’t a good reason to change it, in my opinion. When speaking casually with friends, this isn’t something I would bring up, because I agree with Professor Pullum that it’s rude. However, if a friend handed me a formal letter for her boss to edit, I would most certainly circle this mistake—If someone asks me to edit something, they want my preferences, and my preferences tend to follow the book quite closely.

Point Three: English is not the best language on the planet.

“English is the most important language on the planet, he says – not because it’s better but because, by historical accident, it happens to have spread around the globe. ‘It’s not that English has won out because of its virtue,’ he says. ‘In some ways, English is highly unsuited to its role; it has 200 irregular verbs, where Swahili, for example, has none. It would have been wonderful to have Swahili as a global language, but it didn’t happen.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed! English is incredibly difficult for a non-native speaker to learn, and different cultural nuances make it even more difficult. I would never call English the best language, or even the most beautiful. However, English has been used (and will continue to be used) to produce some of the most historically significant documents ever written, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and some of the most influential literature ever written. I agree with Professor Pullum: English may not be the most ideal global language, but it has become the most important. That’s why learning about how it works and how it affects us is so important to me.

Point Four: All dialects of English are just as valid and significant as any other.

“‘Other, non-standard English dialects aren’t bad or inferior. Saying that African American vernacular English is Standard English with ignorant mistakes is as stupid as thinking that Dutch is just standard Berlin German with ignorant mistakes.’”

My Thoughts:

I’m a little torn on this one, but that goes back to my philosophy about the different functions of language. Speaking is geared towards an immediate effect, and different dialects are perfectly acceptable in that case. Many people have much less control over how they speak versus how they write. So, I agree with Professor Pullum on half of his point: non-standard dialects aren’t bad, but if they carry over into how a person formally writes, I see a problem arise. I’m in no place to condemn any dialect (I live in the American South, after all), but I still hold strong to the idea that all speakers of English can write clearly and effectively on paper.

Point Five: There is a middle ground between strictly following the rules and throwing the rules out the window.

“Whenever linguists point out that the rules of language can’t be what the ‘grammar Nazis’ think they are, people claim that they’re saying anything goes. Not at all, says Pullum. ‘We grammarians who study the English language are not all bow-tie-wearing martinets, but we’re also not flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed. There’s a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language.’”

My Thoughts:

I mostly agree. I like to think I stand in the middle and try to look at language objectively. However, I don’t think I’m in any position to make my own rules. So, if I get confused, I’m much more likely to consult a grammar book than carve my own path and decide for myself what to do.

I like the way Professor Pullum thinks. He casts a different light on the world of grammar, which is usually shadowed by knuckle-slappers and tsk-tsk-ers. However, I’m not quite ready to follow him into the void. Without the grammar rules I know and love, I would be out of a job.

You can learn more about Professor Pullum on his website.

I Don’t Think That Means What You Think It Means: Seven Phrases You’re Probably Misusing

One of my favorite movies of all time turned 25 last year. The Princess Bride has dozens of quotable moments, but one of my favorites is the character Vizzini and his catchphrase, “Inconceivable!”

When I’m reading or editing, every now and then I’ll run across a phrase and Inigo Montoya’s voice will pop into my head:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

These are the most commonly misused phrases I’ve noticed. Until recently, some of them confused me, too. Get ready to feel smarter!

1. “For All Intensive Purposes”

This phrase does not make sense once you understand the definition of the word “intensive.”

in·ten·sive /inˈtensiv/ adj. concentrated on a single area or subject or into a short time; very thorough or vigorous. “She undertook an intensive Arabic course.”
synonyms: thorough, , in-depth, rigorous, exhaustive; vigorous, strenuous; concentrated, condensed, accelerated; detailed, minute, close, meticulous, methodical, careful. “An intensive search of the area”

“For all intensive purposes” is not a very useful phrase and would only apply to very specific circumstances.

Correction: “For All Intents and Purposes”

This makes much more sense. Here, you are using a prepositional phrase to set up a statement: “For all intents and purposes, electric cars are not yet practical.”

Why does for all intents and purposes for some people become for all intensive purposes? Because of a glitch in the way our brains work that causes us to hear a different set of words from the ones that were uttered. For example, my daughter Judith recently said, “I want to go to Jack in the Box.” My wife and I, who were only half listening, responded in turn with, “You want to get a Japanese boss?” and “Who wants dental floss?” When you consider how quickly my daughter’s words got garbled in her parents’ ears, it’s a miracle that for all intents and purposes hasn’t degenerated into fallen tents of porpoises.

—Charles Harrington Elster

2. “On Accident”

This is a simple case of a preposition being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I assume this mix-up developed because of the phrase “on purpose.” To keep a sentence’s structure parallel, we might say, “I deleted the essay on accident, not on purpose.” However, the preposition “on” doesn’t belong here.

Correction: “By Accident”

“I picked the wrong color by accident.”

This might sound strange to you, but “by” is the proper preposition to pair with “accident.” Linguist Leslie Barratt makes a good point:

…why on accident arose is…unclear. Obviously, on purpose may have played a role in supplying an analogical form (I didn’t break the window on purpose; I broke it on accident). But by accident and on purpose have existed for hundreds of years without one causing the other to change prepositions, and we don’t hear by purpose, so why did the change happen when it did and why did the change have the direction it did rather than the other way round (in other words, to by accident & by purpose)?

Many descriptive grammarians would argue that “on” has colloquially replaced “by.” While that may be true, it’s best to stick with “by” in formal writing.

3. “Wreck Havoc”

The word “havoc” means “widespread destruction.” If you are a superhero fighting a hurricane, you can use the phrase “wrecking havoc.” If you own a car named “Havoc” and crash it into a tree, you can say you “wrecked Havoc.” Otherwise, you’re using this phrase incorrectly and you need to stop.

Correction: “Wreak Havoc”

I think this mistake would be much less common if more people pronounced the word “wreak” correctly. “Wreak” does not rhyme with “wreck;” it rhymes with “reek.” When you wreak havoc on something, you cause widespread destruction. When you read the phrase “wreak havoc,” pronounce it correctly in your head. That will help you separate “wreck” and “wreak,” and you won’t mix them up anymore.

4. “Hunger Pains”

This is a strange one. Technically, “hunger pains” is a correct phrase, but it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. If you are experiencing physical pain because you are hungry (not discomfort; actual pain), you have hunger pains.

Correction: “Hunger Pangs”

You are most likely searching for this phrase instead. Hunger pangs are stabs of emotional or physical discomfort due to hunger. This is a much more appropriate phrase to use when you’re on a diet and can’t go back for seconds of that cheesy lasagna.

These phrases are commonly confused because “pains” and “pangs” sound very similar, especially when spoken quickly. Slow down and enunciate to make sure you’re communicating the right idea. Pay attention when you’re writing so you don’t use the wrong one.

5. “Hone In On”

hone /hōn/ verb :sharpen with a whetstone.
synonyms: sharpen, whet, strop, grind, file; polish, refine, improve, enhance, fine-tune

The word “hone” is often used figuratively to express a skill. “She honed her photography techniques during the seminar.” However, “hone” should never be used as “hone in on.” It doesn’t make sense to “sharpen in on” something.

Correction: “Home In On”

When you say you’re “homing in on” something, it means you’re approaching it. This phrase expresses the sentiment of the gibberish phrase “hone in on.”

The scientists are homing in on a solution for the energy crisis.

The twins are homing in on graduation.

Of course, “home” and “hone” sound so similar that people might not notice the mistake when you’re speaking. However, it’s quite an obvious mistake when writing and should be avoided.

6. “Nauseous”

Once you understand this mistake, it will make you laugh every time. To begin, you must understand the primary definition of nauseous.

nau·seous \ˈnȯ-shəs, ˈnȯ-zē-əs\ adj. :causing nausea or disgust: nauseating.
synonyms: disgusting, repellent, offensive

It’s almost impossible to invent a situation in which one would properly use I’m nauseous. (How often does anyone cause others to vomit?) In that unlikely case, however, say something like, I’m apparently being nauseous and making you ill; I’d better leave.

—Theodore Cheney

So, if John told you, “You look nauseous,” you might get upset with John for saying looking at you makes him want to vomit.

Of course, John would then be very confused, and for good reason. This is such a common mistake that most dictionaries include “affected with nausea” as a secondary definition. Some linguists say both definitions arose independently and are both correct. To avoid confusion, though, use two different terms.

Correction: “Nauseated”

This definition makes it clear how you are feeling and how you feel about those around you. When writing, always use “nauseated” to describe the feeling of being sick to one’s stomach.

7. “_______faced lie”

This isn’t actually a mistake, but people interchange these phrases so often that it’s useful to know the individual meanings of each. Each phrase conveys a slightly different meaning.

Barefaced Lie: William Shakespeare coined this phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The meaning of barefaced was clearly ‘without whiskers,’ which led to senses of ‘unconcealed, open,’” writes William Safire. “In time, this innocent lack of disguise took on the color of shamelessness.” So, a barefaced lie is a lie told without shame or remorse.

Baldfaced Lie: The phrase “baldfaced” dates back to the 1600s and originally referred to animals (for example, the bald eagle). Originally, “bald” meant white, not hairless. A “whitefaced” lie implies a blank, unguarded face.

Boldfaced Lie: Shakespeare coined this phrase, too, but its meaning has changed over the years. Boldfaced originally meant confident, but “that soon turned into ‘impudent,’ as confidence so often does” (Safire). A boldfaced lie is a confident lie. This phase is also used by typographers to describe bold font.

The spelling and grammar checker on your word processor probably won’t catch these mistakes, so pay close attention when writing to make sure you’re saying what you actually mean to say.


Barratt, Leslie. “What Speakers Don’t Notice: Language Changes Can Sneak In.” Innovation and Continuity in Language and Communication of Different Language Cultures, ed. Rudolf Muhr (Peter Lang, 2006).

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Second Ed. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, 2005.

Elster, Charles Harrington. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2010.

Fiske, Robert Hartwell. Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists. Simon & Shuster: New York, 2011.

Safire, William. The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular “On Language” Column in the New York Times Magazine. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2004.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar: The Ever-Brewing Battle

There are three types of people who use the English language daily:

1. Grammar Nazis

You’ve seen them. I know you’ve heard them. Everyone has. They know the difference between they’re, their, and there backwards and forwards. You are familiar with the passive-agressive Facebook comments that pop up when you use the wrong form of “your” in a status. They like perfect spelling, proper punctuation, and correcting people.

They are prescriptive grammarians. That sounds a little nicer than “Grammar Nazi,” huh? Start using that phrase in everyday conversation: “Stop being such a prescriptive grammarian!” 

Those who trust prescriptive grammar believe in the concrete qualities of language: syntax, vocabulary, and spelling. According to prescriptive grammar, individuals who speak a language do not have the right to change it without the consent of everyone else who speaks the language. It makes sense; a man in Ohio can’t suddenly decide that what we call “apples” should now be called “bananas.” If everyone started changing words and grammar, everything would fall into chaos because no one would understand each other. Fair enough, prescriptive grammarians. Point to you.

2. Teenagers on Twitter, and Those Who Talk “Lyk Dis”

Even though the days of character limits in text messages are long gone, they still don’t spell out “laughing out loud” or “oh my God.” They use the acronym “WTF” in front of their older relatives. They insert the word “like” into phrases that don’t contain analogies.

Example: goin’ 2 d movie, bbl. cm? cus. luvu
Translation: I’m going to the movie. I’ll be back later. Call me? See you soon. I love you.

Did that cause your heart to slightly contract in horror? Take a few deep breaths. Everything’s going to be okay.

Descriptive Grammarians believe in the ever-evolving state of language. They believe that a language is developed by its users. Therefore, those that use English have the right to change it to suit their needs. Language is a tool. If a tool like a lawn mower was not accomplishing its intended purpose, an inventor would redesign it to become more useful and efficient. Descriptive grammar works the same way, and is evident in the way today’s youth speak through technology. Their abbreviated spellings and curtailed sentences are more efficient in their fast-paced environment.

Some who strongly believe in descriptive grammar might argue that this kind of speaking is okay, and we shouldn’t do anything to stop it. They have a point, too. Read the following:

Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
and forġyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forġyfað ūrum gyltendum.
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.

Didn’t recognize The Lord’s Prayer? Not many would. That’s not some elvish language, either; that’s Old English. If you were a privileged  Anglo-Saxon in the 6th Century, you would’ve recited that prayer every day. If it weren’t for descriptive grammar, you could read it today.

The changes descriptive grammar have made to the English language are undeniable.

3. Those Who “Could Care Less”

Yes, Number Ones, I’m aware that “could care less” is not correct. Number Twos, don’t feel bad that you didn’t notice the mistake.

Some people don’t notice how they use English, and they don’t care. They just want Number Ones and Number Twos to leave them alone.

So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? I call this an “Ever-Brewing Battle” because it feels like the first two groups are always right at the brink of a conflict, but it never comes to fruition. So, they just continue on with their lives, the Grammar Nazis muttering under their breath, the teenagers rolling their eyes.

Some languages, like Spanish, have a formal ruling body that attempts to govern how a language evolves and what changes, if any, should be made. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) in Madrid attempts to keep all speakers of Spanish on track and make sure they don’t blemish the  language. Considering Spanish is spoken by over 400 million people across the globe, the RAE has succeeded so far in many ways. Spanish is (relatively) uniform around the world, partly due to their efforts to preserve its purity.

The RAE in Madrid

English, obviously, has no such ruling body. The effect of that shows in all English-speaking populations. Even though the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia all speak the same language, it’s not quite the same. Our sentence structure is the same, but our colloquialisms don’t match. Our English is not the same English. The funniest example I found of this during my semester in London is the word “pants.” In America, “pants” refers to the article of clothing that covers your legs. If you walk into a dry cleaning store and ask to pick up your pants that have just been cleaned, you would have no trouble. If you tried that in London, the attendant would blush and stutter while the people queuing behind you would “tut tut” because you just asked to pick up your underwear.

Prescriptive grammarians would have none of that. “Pants” would mean the same thing everywhere. New, strange slang would never be added to the dictionary.

There are several phrases that are currently being transferred from descriptive status to prescriptive status. At the end of the century, some of these grammar conflicts might be resolved:

1. Literally

This is a big one. I’ve seen calm, rational people completely snap when others misuse this word. “It’s figuratively!” Example:

#2: It was so embarrassing. I literally wanted to die!
#1: Really? Are you sure? You literally wanted dear, sweet Death to come and take you when you spilled ketchup on your shirt?

However, prescriptive grammarians are on their way to losing this fight. Merriam-Webster has already added the second definition to their American dictionary:


adverb \ˈli-tə-rə-lē, ˈli-trə-lē, ˈli-tər-lē\

1:  in a literal sense or manner :  actually <took the remarkliterally> <was literally insane>
2:  in effect :  virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>
How ’bout that descriptive grammar?
2. Irregardless

This word first came into English in the early twentieth century, and is said to be a casual blend of “irrespective” and “regardless.” This is one of those words that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to Number Ones, due to the fact that it isn’t technically a word at all. It’s most often used as an introduction to a sentence, usually as a counteractive measure: “Irregardless, I still don’t think we need to make two trips to the grocery store in one day.” This word has become so common that it is slowly weaseling its way into the dictionary, too.

3. Their vs. His/Her

This is a really tough one. I run into this conundrum all the time when writing. In many languages, the third person singular pronouns are gender-neutral, or male by default. Spanish is a good example:

Un estudiante necesita estudiar sus libros.
Translation: A student needs to study his (HER?) books.

In Spanish, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the male form when referring to a group of people with different genders. In English, this used to be okay, but we are socially beginning to drift away from the “male only” mindset. Instead, many English speakers have started using the word “their” as a singular noun, even though it is not intended to serve as one.

This mistake is so common now, most people don’t notice it anymore. I will tell you that it is a huge pain to work around when writing. It stops me dead in my tracks every time. The phrase “his or her” is such a mouthful that I don’t like using it. I usually end up avoiding the problem altogether:

Mistake: Every citizen needs to reevaluate their political views before the next election.
Correction: Every citizen needs to reevaluate his or her political views before the next election.
Preferred Correction: All citizens need to reevaluate their political views before the next election.

Using descriptive grammar means these “mistakes” are not necessarily mistakes.

The battle simmers on, and I find myself somewhere in neutral territory, caring about the language enough to understand both sides.