University of South Carolina

Grammar bullies and passive voice prejudice

By Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

Language lovers unite!

Regardless of which side of the grammar fence you prefer – prescriptivism (those who revel in the rules) or descriptivism (those who go with language’s evolving flow) – you won’t want to miss Geoffrey Pullum’s visit to University of South Carolina Friday, Nov. 9.


Pullum, author of the book “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” and more than 200 articles and books on English grammar, will offer a pair of talks at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on grammar and writing. Both events are free and open to the public and take place in Gambrell Hall, Room 153.

He is well-known for his accessible and entertaining approach to talking about and teaching language.

His morning talk addresses grammar bullies. Titled, “Nervous Cluelessness: How grammar teaching in America damages people’s confidence,” Pullum will address how the lack of systematic teaching of grammar has led to bullying.

“To the very limited extent that writing programs cover aspects of grammar, it is taught as a gumbo of unexplained prohibitions and useless clarifications. Worse, those who think they have mastered it tend to use it as a source of gotcha points so that other people’s writing can be nitpicked,” Pullum said. “Students deserve better. I’ll offer some remedies.”

In the afternoon, Pullum will confront the politics of the passive voice in writing.

“Consumers meekly accept the advice, and internalized the prejudice that the passive is weak, evasive, dull, even wicked,” he said. “Yet those who denigrate the passive commonly cannot recognize it when they see it or describe it accurately, and of course they use it unwittingly in their own writing.”

He said he will point out the key thing to understand about the passive and explain why almost all the warnings about passive clauses should be ignored.

Pullum is a visiting professor at Brown University and professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. He writes for two blogs, “Language Log” and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Lingua Franca.”

People who attend Pullum’s talks should bring their sense of humor and leave their red pens at home. For more for information, contact Eric Holt at holt@sc.edu or 803-777-2063.

Pullum’s visit is sponsored in part by the College of Arts and Sciences and its Linguistics Program, Department of Psychology and Department of English.

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Posted: 10/23/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 10/23/12 @ 5:05 PM | Permalink