Books : reviews

Mark Liberman, Geoffrey K. Pullum.
Far From the Madding Gerund: and other dispatches from the Language Log.
William James. 2006

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 2 January 2014

What do linguistics professors do for fun? Savage the SAT, defend “Bushisms,” trash Dan Brown, and show why we must split infinitives—all in witty little essays meant not for specialists, but for everyone interested in how English works. Like Language Log, the site that inspired it, Far From the Madding Gerund is exuberant, tart, and totally addictive.

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:

pp.39-40. Strunk and White’s toxic little book of crap

p68. If you want to see what the very worst of the usage and style recommenders say, it is always a good idea to turn to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style first.

p322. Strunk and White’s poisonous little collection of bad grammatical advice, The Elements of Style

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).

p279. it’s not just the existence of ignorant authoritarian prescriptivism in this culture that needs an explanation, it’s also the level of anger that accompanies its expression.

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!).