Going through boxes of old stuff, I came across the April 12, 1988 telegram(!) that told me that I had been accepted into the UMass PhD program in linguistics:

UMass acceptance telegram

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Fruits and veggies would be healthy

A famous example by Sperber & Wilson shows the context dependency of conversational inferences:

He: Will you have some coffee?
She: Coffee would keep me awake.

Depending on whether one surmises that she would like to stay awake, one can infer either a positive or negative answer to whether she would like some coffee.

The April 7, 2014 issue of the “Zits” cartoon gives us a new illustration:

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In today’s Boston Globe baseball preview section: “Jake Stahl (1912), Ed Barrow (1918), Terry Francona (2004), and John Farrell (2013) are the only Red Sox managers to win the World Series in their first season.”

Hmm. Yeah, no. The Red Sox have had 44 managers in their history, so when 4 of them win the World Series in their first season, does that really merit an “only”? I mean, what is the expected frequency of a manager winning a world series in their first season? Almost certainly a lot less than 4 in 44.

But the more astonishing fact is that of the 8 World Series wins the Red Sox have had, half of them were by rookie managers. (And one of those, Francona, won another one. So, 5 trophies belong to managers who won one in their first season.) That’s definitely not an “only”.

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Every department needs a publication advisor

Every academic department anywhere should designate one of their members to be Publication Advisor. This will be someone who, with the help of their local librarians and whoever else can be helpful, informs themselves about the current state of scholarly publishing. They will learn about their institution’s Open Access Policy (if it exists; otherwise, they may initiate discussions about putting such a policy in place). They will learn to read publication agreements and spot potential pitfalls. They will make themselves familiar with the practices of the leading journals in their discipline. They will look for discipline-appropriate ways of publishing that will give readers open access to research results.

When a member of the department has a manuscript to submit, they can consult the Publication Advisor in their search for a good venue. Throughout the submission and publication process, they can ask the Publication Advisor for advice.

Some universities have staff members who try to fill that role for the entire university. I think that a more local, embedded approach is needed to make progress on the ground.

This idea was prompted by the latest skirmish in the war between scholars and mercenary publishers: (Nature playing hardball with Duke over Duke’s OA Policy).

Not unrelated: More from Spiegel Online:

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Language Science Press

It’s still early days but the open-access revolution in linguistics continues. Stefan Müller and Martin Haspelmath, with seed funding from the German Science Foundation (DFG), have started an open access monograph press in linguistics called Language Science Press. E-books will be free to authors and readers. There will be a print-on-demand option as well. There are several series planned, including one on “Topics at the Grammar-Discourse Interface”, edited by Philippa Cook, Anke Holler and Cathrine Fabricius-Hansen. I have enthusiastically agreed to be on the editorial board of this series. You can support the venture in many ways. Sign up at

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My Academic Genealogy - Part 2

Kai's Stammbaum, Part 2

This is the second part of my reconstruction of my academic lineage, in which we encounter someone whose dissertation defense lasted seven hours and someone else who basically compiled his dissertation the night before it was due.

I am still learning quite a bit about each of these academic ancestors of mine, but because this could take a while, I wanted to present at least the outlines of the tree and give a few notes on the characters in it.

In the first part, we reached Eduard Schwartz, who defended his dissertation in 1880 in Bonn and who worked with two advisors, Franz Bücheler and Hermann Usener. Before we go further, I have to note that with Schwartz, there’s a blemish in my academic ancestry: Wikipedia says that in 1928, Schwartz became a supporter of the antisemitic Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (although they also report that he had no sympathy for the Nazis). We’ll soon see that there is a modicum of anticipatory redemption earlier in the tree.

Bücheler & Usener

Usener and Bücheler were the twin towers of classical philology in Bonn, lifelong friends, and jointly advised plenty of other students besides Schwartz. Here are pictures of them:

Bücheler Usener

With them, the tree branches in an interesting way. Bücheler and Usener both got their degrees in Bonn (Bücheler in 1856 at the age of 18 (!) and Usener in 1858 at the age of 24). Both of them had two advisors, as far as I can tell, and they shared one of them.

Franz Bücheler (* 3. Juni 1837 in Rheinberg; † 3. Mai 1908 in Bonn) graduated on March 13, 1856 in Bonn with a dissertation entitled “De Ti. Claudio Caesare Grammatico” (freely downloadable from Google), which deals with Latin orthography during the time of Emperor Claudius. He lists as advisors Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker and Friedrich Ritschl. Here are the title page and the vita from his dissertation:

Bücheler Title Page Bücheler Vita

Hermann Carl Usener (* 23. Oktober 1834 in Weilburg; † 21. Oktober 1905 in Bonn) wrote a dissertation called “Analecta Theophrastea” (freely viewable and downloadable from the library in Munich). He dedicates the work to his two main teachers: Christian August Brandis and, again, Friedrich Ritschl. Here are the title page, dedication, and vita from the dissertation:

Usener Title Page Usener Dedication

Usener Vita

The Bonn-centrism of this period of our genealogy is both personally appropriate (given my years in nearby Cologne and my frequent visits to Bonn) and historically non-accidental: Bonn was a pre-eminent center of classical philology. A history of the University of Bonn points out the two successive triumvirats of classical philology that taught in Bonn: Usener, Bücheler, and Kekulé, and before them, Welcker, Ritschl, Jahn. The author claims that these six would have to be mentioned among the twelve most important scholars in classical studies during the 19th century. In fact, Wilamowitz is quoted as saying that the history of classical philology simply is the history of Bonn’s philological seminar.

Continuing from Usener and Bücheler, there are now three ancestors to look at: Brandis, Welcker, and Ritschl. Brandis and Welcker had no doctor father that I can identify, so only Ritschl’s branch of the tree continues into the past.


Christian August Brandis

Christian August Brandis (* 13. Februar 1790 in Holzminden; † 21. Juli 1867 in Bonn) graduated on January 12, 1812 (at the age of 21) at the University of Copenhagen, with a thesis “Commentationes Eleaticarum” (a collection of fragments from Xenophanes, Parmenides and Melissus). He had studied at the University of Kiel before, starting at the age of 18 (so it took him little more than 3 years to get his first degree). Brandis doesn’t seem to have had a clear advising relationship with anyone. I haven’t found out who, if anyone, might have been his sponsor in Copenhagen. Even his autobiographic sketch doesn’t include any mention of teachers or advisors in Copenhagen, just a list of people he hung out with. He does say that his defense lasted seven hours, so maybe that left such a scar that he repressed the memories. In any case, unless I manage to find out more, this branch of the tree ends with Brandis. Here is the title page of his thesis:

Brandis Thesis Title Page

There is no vita or dedication in the thesis.


Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker

Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker (* 4. November 1784 in Grünberg; † 17. Dezember 1868 in Bonn) studied classical philology at the University of Giessen. He had to earn his keep by teaching at a kind of prep school and in his free time wrote his dissertation “Exercitatio philologica imaginem Ulyssis quae in Iliade exstat adumbrans”, which got him his doctorate two days before Christmas 1803 (when he was barely 19 years old). (I have not been able to access the work.) Welcker was home-schooled as a youth and seems to have continued mainly as an autodidact, so just like with Brandis, the tree ends with his node.

In something of an anticipatory redemption for the academic family, he was a notorious liberal and was arrested at least once.

Welcker was house teacher and friend in the Humboldt household when they were in Rome. He wrote a history of Greek gods and Mommsen said of him that the gods wouldn’t let him die before he had finished writing their history; he lived to the ancient age of 84. He was director of Bonn’s university library for 35 years.

I should note that another of Welcker’s students, Friedrich Christian Dietz, has massive progeny among modern linguists, since Uriel Weinrich and through Weinrich, William Labov, are among his decendents. See the relevant subtree here. So, all of the people tracing back their ancestry to Dietz are distant cousins of ours.


Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl

Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (* 6. April 1806 in Großvargula (Thüringen); † 9. November 1876 in Leipzig) got his degree at the University of Halle in 1829 (at the age of 23). He taught at various universities but for the longest time in Bonn. He is the founder of the Bonn School of Classical Philology and thus was perhaps the true ancestor of Usener, Bücheler, Schwartz, von der Mühll, and Theiler, and thus of Egli, Kratzer, and myself. To see the topics that he covered in his teaching, we can inspect the list of all of the classes he taught when he was at the University of Leipzig from 1866 to 1876.

His most famous student is Friedrich Nietzsche, who he taught in Bonn and Leipzig, and who he helped to his first professorial appointment, in Basel, which Nietzsche got without having written a dissertation. Thus, through Ritschl’s mentorship of Nietzsche, my academic family has acquired a truly illustrious cousin!

Ritschl’s main teacher in Halle was Christian Karl Reisig but Reisig had died by the time he got his doctorate, so we will also need to trace back the lineage of his official sponsor, Moritz Meier. The story of Ritschl’s studenthood is well re-told by William Clark in his book “Academic charisma and the origins of the research university” on pages 230-237 (based largely on Ribbeck’s biography of Ritschl). Here’s the gist of it:

Ritschl started as a student in Göttingen in 1824, studied in Leipzig in 1825 and 1826, and then went to Halle. He had studied with Gottfried Hermann in Leipzig and then studied with Hermann’s student Reisig in Halle. Reisig was in a feud with Moritz Meier, who had been appointed director of the philological institute over Reisig’s head. That feud was in fact a continuation of a feud between Reisig’s teacher Hermann and Meier’s teacher Böckh. We will get back to this (a faint echo in the past of the sixties’ Linguistics Wars?).

Reisig founded and ran a private society which was meant to be a rival to the official institute run by Meier. Clark picks up the story:

In Ritschl’s student days at Halle, public disputation enjoyed high esteem anew, especially among the classicists. Nonclassicists trembled when they faced classicists as opponents in disputation, still conducted in Latin. Internecine warfare between the classicists had arisen from the projection of the Hermann-Böckh feud into the camps of Reisig’s society versus Meier’s Greek section of the Halle seminar. Ritschl had transferred to Halle in 1826, the year after the Hermann-Böckh feud had become bitter. He soon made a name for himself as an opponent at disputation. He sought to annihilate students from the seminar’s Greek section — students, that is, of Böckh’s student Meier — in disputations.

In 1828, Heinrich Foss, the senior student in the seminar and a devoted disciple of Meier, wrote and tried to defend his doctoral dissertation. Foss himself had previously attacked a student named Wex from Reisig’s classics society at Wex’s public disputation. Ritschl sought to play the avenger by attempting to destroy Foss at Foss’s public disputation in 1828. Foss received his doctorate, but the disputational battle between him and Ritschl supposedly not only split the gown but also the town of Halle in two camps. “Even the ladies” of the town supposedly took sides in this doctoral drama.

After Reisig’s death, Ritschl was without a doctor father. But Meier took the high road and took him under his wings. He even said that if Ritschl could get his doctorate and his habilitation before the fall of 1829, he would get him a job as a lecturer (Privatdozent). But this meant that Ritschl had to get two pieces of written work done by the fall. So, he did what every good student would do: procrastinate. In the end, a heroic effort got everything done just in time:

he spent three days, with a total of nine hours sleep, shaping the emendations into a coherent dissertation. He then paid for three typesetters to work through two nights to get the dissertation printed on time — the printer probably had other obligations for the normal day hours. “This was the thing composed, set, printed, and bound at night — a true work of the the night.” But it was done. He did the theses the night before the disputation. After two hours sleep, he appeared at the public disputation at 10:00 a.m. I do not know if any of Meier’s seminar students tried to annihilate Ritschl. But, by 3:00 p.m., 11 July, after five days labor with little sleep, a new doctor of philosophy existed.

Here is the title page of the dissertation, which is available from the Bavarian State Library:

Ritschl's Thesis Title Page

I already mentioned that there will be more to say about the Hermann-Böckh feud. But clearly, bad blood arose easily in those days. Ritschl was the central party in the so-called “Philology War of Bonn”. The gist: Ritschl wanted to hire an additional faculty member to strengthen classical philology in Bonn when his colleague Welcker was getting on in years. He chose Otto Jahn and got him hired without Welcker’s knowledge, while Welcker was abroad on sabbatical. Welcker wasn’t all too thrilled when he found out. Jahn tried hard to become Welcker’s friend, which angered Ritschl. Years later, Jahn tried to get his friend Hermann Sauppe hired, this time behind Ritschl’s back. Sauppe in the end didn’t accept the offer, but Ritschl went ballistic and started a campaign against Jahn. Ritschl was reprimanded by the ministry of education, the press got riled up, the parliament discussed the case. Fun and games. In the end, Ritschl left Bonn to take a position in Leipzig. Soon though, Bücheler and Usener restored Bonn Philology to its leading status.

In the next installment, I will talk about Ritschl’s teachers Meier and Reisig, and their teachers Hermann and Böckh. Reisig, by the way, is often mentioned as the first philologist to take semantics seriously, under the term “Semasiology”, which he coined.

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Here’s an interesting article [HT: Steve Crandall]:

Ciampolini, Mario, David Lovell-Smith, Timothy Kenealy, Riccardo Bianchi: 2013. Hunger can be taught: Hunger Recognition regulates eating and improves energy balance. International Journal of General Medicine. 6:465-478. DOI:

Why do I find this interesting?

  • Any help with weight control is truly welcome.
  • I like seeing Open Access journals that are publishing good stuff.
  • I love that there is a video abstract of the paper.
  • I like the “Resume” at the end of the paper, which has five short subsections:
    • What was already known
    • What had been overlooked
    • What could not be known
    • What the authors’ studies have added
    • Implications

Doing this for many scientific articles wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.

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Charles Leonard Hamblin

[This is a revision of a 2003 blog post.]

A student in my 2003 advanced semantics class asked about C.L. Hamblin, who in semantics is mostly —- and justly —- famous for his early montagovian paper on questions: C.L. Hamblin: 1973. “Questions in Montague English”, Foundations of Language 10: 41–53. [By the way, Foundations of Language was the precursor journal of Linguistics and Philosophy.]

But who was he and what else did he do? I didn’t know, but in 2003 I found two web pages by Peter McBurney about him. It turns out that he was both a philosopher and apparently a pioneer in computer science (he died in 1985):

[Francisco Gomes Martins pointed out to me this week that my old post about Hamblin had defunct links in it. Luckily, the Wayback Machine at still has copies. So, that’s what’s linked to above.]

Two tidbits: “According to his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, Hamblin spoke 25 languages, mostly from the Asian-Pacific region, but also including ancient Greek. … At the time of his death, he was apparently attempting to set words of Wittgenstein to music.”

After I first posted about this, Peter McBurney, the author of the two web pages referred to above, wrote to me to remind me that

Hamblin’s book on Imperatives (published posthumously in 1987 by Blackwell, Oxford) was also influential with some linguists. This book has also influenced some recent work in computer science, on automated delegation between computational entities.

Peter McBurney followed up with another email:

Dear Kai —-

In your email of 8 May, you asked me about Charles Hamblin’s teachers in London. I have now had the opportunity of reading Hamblin’s PhD thesis at University of London. Although no one is thanked or acknowledged in his thesis, I have learnt from a former PhD student of Hamblin that he did his PhD under Karl Popper.

The thesis presents a strong critique of Claude Shannon’s then-recent theory of information for failing to deal with the meaning of information, along with a semantic theory of question-response interactions. Hamblin proposes a possible-worlds semantics for these, which is interesting in light of the fact that this was written 3 years before Saul Kripke’s first publication on the matter in 1959. Hamblin’s thesis also considers everyday usage of the word “information” and how this bears on any theory of information. His thesis is a mix of computer theory, philosophy of logic, formal logic, and philosophy of language —- perhaps one of the earliest works in which these disciplines were combined.


—- Peter

Francisco asked me whether Hamblin’s thesis is available online. After some digging, it turns out it is:

You have to register for free and go through some hoops but in the end you will be able to download a pdf of Hamblin’s thesis. Here’s the cover page:

Cover page of Hamblin's thesis

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Up-goer five semantics

A couple of months ago, Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic explained the design of the Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words of English: “the Up Goer Five explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often”.

Explaining hard things in simple language has now become an internet meme. Just this morning, I found Walton Jones explaining his lab’s work on the genetics and neuroscience of olfaction in Drosophila: “We are interested in how little animals with six legs smell things”. There is a tumblr blog with many of these summaries.

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor makes it easy to experiment with writing down your research in the ten hundred most used words. Here’s an attempt at an up-goer five abstract for my upcoming colloquium talk at McGill (“Hedging your ifs and vice versa”, joint work with Thony Gillies):

How does the word “if” help things we say mean what they mean? It can work together with other words like “maybe” and “probably” to make things we say less strong. But how does it do that?

Many people have tried to find out how this works, but we will show that they face a big problem when one looks at people talking to each other and pointing to things the other said.

Can we do better?

There are some obstacles for a linguist. You often need to mention linguistic expressions that you work on. I was lucky that if, maybe, and probably are licit. On the other hand, “sentence” is not allowed.

Related: George Boolos’ classic exploit “Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable”.

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Statement on Aaron Swartz

We are deeply saddened by Aaron Swartz’s death, and send our condolences to all who knew him. We are very mindful of his commitment to the open access movement. It inspires our own commitment to work for a situation where academic knowledge is freely available, so that others are not menaced by the kind of prosecution that he faced. We encourage everyone to visit, a memorial site created by Aaron’s family and friends.

Scott Aaronson
Sasha Costanza-Chock
Ellen Finnie Duranceau
Kai von Fintel
Richard Holton
George Stephanopoulos
Anne Whiston Spirn

Members of the MIT Open Access Working Group

[cross-posted from the OA Working Group wiki and Scott Aaronson’s blog]

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S&P acquired by LSA

[Crossposted from S&P Editors Blog]

We are excited to share good news about the future of S&P. We have been working with the LSA on moving S&P out of its current incubating stage to the next level with fuller support. This morning, the LSA Executive Committee unanimously approved an agreement to that effect.

As of today, S&P is a full-fledged LSA journal, alongside Language but independent of it. The LSA will join MIT and the University of Texas in providing financial support to the journal. In return, S&P is to become a journal owned by the LSA and titled “Semantics and Pragmatics” with the subtitle “A Journal of the Linguistic Society of America”.

The day-to-day operations of the journal will not change. The current editorial team will stay in place. The policies and procedures, including the open access nature of the journal, will remain as they are. Big decisions will be made cooperatively by the LSA Executive Committee, the editors, and the S&P advisory committee.

Both the LSA and the S&P team are excited about this partnership. Open access is the future of scholarly communication and we intend to work together to make S&P the best journal in its field and a model for our discipline and others.

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An S&P underground classic

[Crossposted from the S&P Editors Blog:]

Semantics & Pragmatics today published an underground classic, Craige Roberts’ famous paper “Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics”, which had previously been published in a volume of OSU Working Papers in Linguistics, and then circulated in a slighly edited manuscript form, but was never officially published. With the help of Anders Schoubye, Chris Brown, and Justin Cope, the old manuscript was transformed into LaTeX and formatted for the S&P stylesheet. Craige wrote a new afterword and prepared an annotated bibliography, which is linked from the afterword. We’re proud to be able to make this classic paper and the supplementary material available in an official publication.

Reissuing underground classics is a worthwhile undertaking, we believe. Some famous examples are David Kaplan’s “Demonstratives” published in Themes from Kaplan, Kripke on presupposition published in Linguistic Inquiry, and in a sense also Grice’s William James Lectures. There was also volume 7 of the series “Syntax and Semantics” entitled “Notes from the linguistic underground” (edited by Jim McCawley in 1976), featuring famous papers such as Karttunen’s “Discourse referents” and gems like “Why you can’t do so into the sink” by Lakoff & Ross. So, we are continuing a respectable tradition.

Question for our audience: which other underground classics in semantics and pragmatics should S&P consider publishing? You can email us at , comment on our Facebook page or our Google+ page, tweet (cc’ing @semprag), or leave a comment on our Editors Blog.

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Suspicion re Cestagi

I received this email:

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2012 15:06:16 +0000
Subject: Curriculum Vitae for Scientists and Researchers
From: Olivia Frogous

Dear Kai Von Fintel,

I would like you to consider Cestagi when updating your curriculum vitae for this upcoming academic year. Cestagi is a web application that allows you to create and manage your CV with ease using academic best practices. Your personalized CV page can be monitored using Google-like visitor analytics and easily exported offline into Word, Latex, or PDF using various templates including NSF and NIH standards.

I encourage you to take some time and learn more about this free service by visiting:

Please recommend Cestagi to your colleagues and friends who you feel would benefit from it.

Best regards,

Massachusetts Institute Of Technology

I know of no “Olivia Frogous” at MIT and a search verified that there is no such person here. A Google search revealed at least one page where another institution was warning about this person (who had identified themselves as being affiliated with that institution in an email). So, appropriately suspicious, I looked at the advertised web service for sharing CVs.

At first glance, it looks legitimate and includes a privacy policy and terms & conditions of use. But there’s no information whatsoever on the site about who is behind the service and where it is run from. The whois information on the domain is deliberately uninformative as well, it just states who their registrar and webhost is.

There is a Quora query about this service with a positive reply from someone calling themselves “Mark Frendrope”, whose only presence on the web appears to be to tout Cestagi in a few places.

At this point, I can only assume that this may well be a fraudulent enterprise, perhaps designed to harvest personal information from those who upload their CVs to it. I would stay away from it at all costs and look for other ways of sharing academic information about yourself ( comes to mind, or just posting your CV on your own webpages).

To repeat, following up on the fraudulent claim in the email signature that “Olivia Frogous” is affiliated with MIT somehow, I have found no evidence that Cestagi is a legitimate service with identifiable people standing behind it.

Update (2012-11-20): After I posted this note, I was immediately contacted by anonymous staff at Cestagi and asked to take the note down. I said I would update it if they gave me relevant information and and if they explained the spam campaign. It took quite a while but the website is now updated and identifies the owner (and sole staff?) of the site as Adrian M. Kopacz, a recent Mechanical Engineering PhD from Northwestern University.

I’m still awaiting an explanation for the spam campaign and the fraudulent affiliation claims by the spammers. By the way, a friend reported getting similar emails: from “Ann Mrego”, purportedly affiliated with Northwestern University, and “Stan Latuga”, “from” UC Berkeley; both institutions my friend has had e-mail accounts with. Google searches did not turn up any results for these people at these institutions. So, it does seem like there was a systematic campaign and I hope it’s not continuing.

Update (2013-01-29): I still have a bad feeling about this operation. Adrian Kopacz emailed me as follows: “I wish for you to remove this content, including my personal information, as it reflects negatively on the branding of Cestagi.” I do not intend to take this down nor to revise its cautionary tone unless and until the spammy character of the enterprise is cleaned up. I fail to see why this individual would not want his personal information to be associated with his own project, unless, of course, the project is not one that he can be proud of.

In the mean time, another MIT affiliate reports receiving an email touting Cestagi, this one from “John Merlocke”, another name that does not turn up anything via Google search, except a shell Google+ profile. So, the spamming campaign from made-up people does seem to be continuing. [I do wonder which fake name generator is being used to make up these names.]

One more update (2013-01-29): Word now that the spam/phishing campaign definitely continues unabated. Researchers at the United States Geological Survey have been receiving identical emails touting Cestagi from someone called “Stacy Ferando” (again a name that yields no Google hits other than a shell Google+ profile).

The template that the campaign currently uses is this:

Dear $X,

I noticed you have an outdated curriculum vitae web page. You should keep it up-to-date while working at $Y.

You may want to take advantage of Cestagi to create and maintain a curriculum vitae following academic regulations and best practices:

Please let others know about this free platform. I believe it will be of great benefit to everyone.

Warm regards,


Needless to say, my correspondents do not have outdated CVs.

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Guidelines for writing abstracts

Found via Facebook this morning: Guidelines for writing abstracts, drawn up a while ago by Johan Rooryck and Vincent van Heuven after consultation of the Linguist List. I pretty much agree 100% with these guidelines, but about 200% with this one: “Don’t put your examples on a separate page, even when the abstract guidelines allow you to do so: abstract reviewers hate having to go back and forth between pages”. (This is a corollary of the same principle that banishes endnotes from academic publishing.)

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