I have received a welcome shipment from Language Log Plaza: a copy of Far from the Madding Gerund, a collection of posts by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum from Language Log. Now, you might think: “Why should I pay for a book the entirety of whose contents is available online gratis?” But except to those frighteningly nouveau-siècle types who think books are a relic of the past, like clay tablets and slide rules, the experience of reading is much enhanced by being able to see the words in nice crisp type on a page that can be carried around, read while walking down the street, and (if inspiration strikes and one is not part of the books-are-sacred-objects crowd) annotated by hand. And this is a beautifully produced book (my hat is off to the publisher, William, James & Company): handsome, nicely laid out (with URLs and annotations in smaller-type sidebars), well indexed; hell, it even smells good. And it’s actually been proofread, which seems to be viewed as an unnecessary expense by most publishers these days; the only thing I’ve found to raise an eyebrow at so far is the failure to change quotes-within-quotes to single quotes in this (from page 25): “A grammatical, usage or pronunciation mistake made by “correcting” something that’s right to begin with. For example, use of the pronoun whom in ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’” But that’s extremely small potatoes.
And all of that is beside the real point, which is that this is a tremendous pleasure to read. I’ve read just about everything in it already, but I find myself inexorably drawn to read it all again. The first selection is one of my all-time favorite posts, last year’s The disappearing modal: for those who’ll believe anything, which contains this immortal exchange:
Q: Is James Cochran, then, nothing but a mendacious pontificating old windbag?
A: Yes, it would appear that he is an utter fraud.
I read that several times over when it appeared online (once, out loud, to my wife), and I’ve reread it again now with undiminished joy. The selection after that is They are a prophet, which promotes one of my favorite causes, singular they. Then comes The blowing of Strunk and White’s rules off, an attack on one of my favorite targets, and after that a demolition job on the Chicago Manual of Style‘s sadly deficient new grammar section (“They commissioned a tired rehash of traditional grammar repeating centuries-old errors of analysis instead of trying to obtain a more up-to-date presentation. A real lost opportunity that has lessened the authority of a wonderful reference book, one that on topics from punctuation to citation to indexing to editing can really be trusted”)… Well, it’s all good stuff, is what I’m trying to say.
Furthermore, it fills an important gap: there are plenty of good linguistics book out there, but they’re written for linguists and students for the most part, and they tend to require a serious commitment of time and effort. And there are plenty of language books aimed at the general public, with short, easy-to-digest takes on words and language use, but they’re almost uniformly terrible, written by people who may be experts on some other subject but know nothing about linguistic facts, and who keep passing on the same tired myths and lies to the public at large. This book does not demand that you clear your head and sit down with furrowed brow for several hours; nothing is more than a few pages long, and technical vocabulary is kept to a minimum. And it’s written by real linguists who actually know what they’re talking about, which means that the more people read it, the less acceptance there will be for the nonsense peddled by the Strunks and Whites of the world, and the less occasion I will have to grow red in the face and sputter incoherently. So get copies for everyone you know!
In a spirit of full disclosure, I will point out that Languagehat gets five mentions in the book (yes, of course the first thing I did was look myself up in the index), including a reference to my citation of Aristotle on blogs, which I hope will now enter the wider world of discourse and become as well known as the burning of the Library of Alexandria to provide fuel for bathhouses. I must say, though, I was saddened by the quote from my How many new words?, which in their version begins as follows: “Lieberman [sic] rightly (in my opinion) discounts the trademarks…” I know Mark hates it when people misspell his name, and I know I had a bad habit of doing that, but I broke myself of it, and I went back and fixed it in that entry, but to no avail: my oafish slip is now immortalized for the world to see, speared by that cold, cold [sic]! Mea culpa, O Marce, mea maxima culpa!