We all know that the Eskimo language has loads of words for snow, don't we? And that number grows with the telling: 10, 50, 100s, whatever. Pullum's acerbic little essay (essentially a review of Laura Martin's in-depth study of the claim) points out that (1) there is absolutely no evidence for the claim, and (2) even if it were true, it would be of no more interest than the fact that interior designers have names for shades of mauve. The main thrust of his essay, however, is that, even though Martin has comprehensively debunked this 'fact', it has been impossible to eradicate it from popular culture, or even from academic linguistic culture, because nobody ever checks their sources.
The theme underlying this whole collection of essays (reprinted from his TOPIC...COMMENT column in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory) is that of a shoddy level of scholarship in the discipline of linguistics: researchers who don't check their sources, and who fail to reference the literature, reviewers who don't know the literature, journals that don't copy edit where they should, and do copy edit where they shouldn't. The essays are acidly humorous, but since they are written for academic linguists, I am sure I missed many in-jokes. Still, they give a fascinating insight into another discipline, some wise thoughts on academic integrity that are generally applicable, and some wonderfully funny moments.
This is a collection of selected posts from The Language Log, a lively blog about grammar and more. Each entry is a short, pithy commentary on some aspect of grammar that has annoyed the authors.
For example, Geoff Pullum clearly has issues with Strunk and White:
Many of the entries are examples of poor grammar advice, as delivered by people who don’t know the real grammar of English. There is some interesting discussion on how grammar can be descriptive rather than prescriptive (having rules derived from how people actually use the language, rather than having a bunch of made-up rules that few people follow), whilst simultaneously allowing for grammatical errors (the derived rules are based on patterns of usage, not just single idiosyncratic events).
Some of their advice I myself do not follow. For example, they talk of the “which-hunts”, where people are told that, for example, “the phone on the desk which is ringing” is grammatically incorrect, and should be “the phone on the desk that is ringing”. I’m not claiming that the “which” form is incorrect, but I do advise my students to use the “that” form, in order to clearly distinguish it from “the phone on the desk, which is ringing”. (The form without the comma indicates there are several phones on the desk, and I am referring to the one of them that is ringing; the form with the comma indicates there is a single phone on the desk, which, by the way, is ringing.) I advise my students to do this because many writers don’t seem to know that the comma in the sentence changes the meaning, and I think it is easier for them to get the right meaning if they consistently use “that” for one form, and restrict “which” for the other. But I don’t get angry about it.
Many of the entries here are quite technical, using grammatical terms that I wasn’t previously aware of. But it’s all written in a witty, trenchant style. It ends up with some entries on Dan Brown’s writing style, which I had come across before when reviewing the film of The Da Vinci Code, and was the main reason I bought this book (and didn’t buy the Dan Brown book!).