John Drescher

This professor knew the language – and could zing you with it

Dr. Robert Rodman, a linguist and N.C. State University professor who died earlier this year.
Dr. Robert Rodman, a linguist and N.C. State University professor who died earlier this year. File photo

Alexa, who was Robert Rodman?

Robert Rodman, a linguist and N.C. State University professor who died earlier this year at age 76, helped write the book on language. He co-wrote “An Introduction to Language,” which has sold more than one million copies and is in its 10th edition.

Rodman was an erudite man with a wide range of expertise. He had advanced degrees in linguistics and math, and taught both – linguistics at UNC-Chapel Hill and math and programming at NCSU.

His work put him at the forefront of the intersection of language and computer science, according to his paid obituary, which was published in April: “His pioneering work in the field of voice recognition helped usher in the now ubiquitous ability of computers to understand human speech.”

When it came to the English language (and possibly everything else), Rodman did not suffer fools gladly. While some readers enjoyed my occasional columns on word choice and reader pet peeves, those columns were likely to set Rodman off in a spasm of caustic email. Rodman thought many of us adhered to rules about the language that were myths.

(Rodman could be savagely brilliant. When I wrote that baseball box scores would no longer be published in the print N&O but would be available at newsobserver.com, Rodman wrote, “A box score on a smart phone is like viewing the Mona Lisa through a knothole.” Touché.)

Here are excerpts from some of Rodman’s emails after my columns about your language peeves:

▪ “I lament over teaching kids anything when intelligent adults fail to learn. I have written ... you in the past about publishing the errant nonsense and ignorant urban legends about language that people seem to have engraved in their brain ...”

▪ “These thoughts occupy the same box as the ones that claim the moon landings took place on a sound stage in Hollywood and there are alligators in the sewer of New York.”

▪ “This is your friendly linguist writing. Today’s column was much better than your last crack at my profession, but the headline put you down for an eight count. One does not split verbs; one splits infinitives.”

▪ “Even the grammar police have to have something to do when they get tired of unsplitting infinitives and discovering that a preposition is not such a bad thing to end a sentence with.”

▪ “As for impact used as a verb, English is such that nearly any noun can be ‘verbed.’ It would not surprise me if there are some 10,000 verbs in English that began their life as a noun.”

▪ “O mine linguistic soul! I know that I am not your favorite correspondent but I have dedicated a good part of my life to teaching people the facts of language and trying to put to rest the misconceptions.”

Professor Rodman, I shall miss you. No one could write a torching email quite like you.

However, in honor of our spirited exchanges, I present a few more reader pet peeves and irritants sent to me:

▪ “Another national disgrace is not being able to use ‘further’ and ‘farther’ correctly.”

▪ “The murder of the 1-year-old child was indeed tragic but was it ‘senseless’? I suspect ALL murders are so.”

▪ “In your Under the Dome article, the word you wanted was ‘quashing,’ not ‘squashing.’”

That I won’t receive a barbed email from Dr. Rodman makes this a little less fun.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher

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