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!


  1. Wow, I know they’re already successful profs, but still, getting blog posts published is a big deal.

  2. The book sounds great, and I’m glad it’s well made. I only wish they’d put a little more attention into the construction of the blog. Why use gray text instead of black, and why do they still have that silly frame instead of having languagelog.com point to their real server?

  3. I myself have wondered why they don’t spring for their own domain. Just cheap, I guess.

  4. They’ve registered the domain, since they’re using it. All they need to do is point the DNS to their server and have their server set up to respond to it. And since the host name they’re using on their server is itre.cis.upenn.edu, I’m assuming someone technical at the university is running it. So it’s not a matter of cost, just getting the server admin to add a few lines to the conf file and changing the DNS records at their registrar. Then their blog would work like everyone else’s.
    I know, I know, I’m entitled to a full refund of my subscription fees.

  5. Daanish says:

    “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”
    Thanks for that. It touches on something I’ve wanted to know for a long time now, but didn’t know who to ask. What is the correct usage of a comma when it pertains to a word that’s being used in quotations? This has always been a bone of contention for me. I sometimes notice people, well-versed in English, using the comma outside their quotations. But according to an old copy of Speak Better and Write Better, the author suggests putting it inside the quotes. What do you reckon?

  6. This is one of those UK/US style things. Yanks put periods and commas inside quotes, Brits put them outside (except they call them “full stops” rather than “periods”). Neither is right or wrong; they’re simply two different habits of punctuating.

  7. I wish they’d reinstate comments, too. And include full posts in the RSS feed. And include the entire post on the front page. I hate having to click through for every single post, which is particularly necessary since the posts are often written in such a way that it’s impossible to tell what the post is about from what’s on the front page or in the RSS feed. (I’ve sent all these complaints to Mark Liberman, so this isn’t indirect grousing.)

  8. LH, some styles in the US use the “logical” order of punctuation with quotation marks too. I did copyediting for several years at the American Chemical Society, whose style manual prescribes putting only stuff that actually belongs inside the quotes inside the quotes, and there are other scientific and technical style manuals with similar rules. The logical style can be especially necessary in editing text about using computers. But it’s true that most US publications use the other style.

  9. Tom S. says:

    from the editor:
    For quoatation marks, this book and Language Log use the style I refer to alternately as British or “logical.” (Though I obviously do not follow that standard in my own writing.)
    About the single/double quotes: LL mostly employs single quotes, using double quotes for quotes within quotes (as is LSA style, according to Pullum). The book employs double quotes, using single quotes for quotes within quotes. When making the switchover, one—I hope only one!—was missed, obviously (automated search and replace is only somewhat helpful for these kinds of tasks).
    So, a couple of things to put on the errata sheet here, but if the book makes sense and is fun to read . . . well, that was the point all along.

  10. Tom S. says:

    “For quotation marks,” rather.
    I never was much good onscreen.

  11. Hey, Tom, good of you to drop by! No need to apologize for the quote thing; it’s so minor it wouldn’t have been worth mentioning except that, as the only slip I was able to turn up (and I’m a copyeditor by profession, so I notice things), it’s a striking example of the high quality of the book’s editing.

  12. (Also, it’s an iron rule that reviews have to complain about something.)

  13. >And it’s actually been proofread […]
    That’s reassuring, as the available-online PDF of the first twenty pages has (or at one point had — I haven’t checked to see if they’re still there) a number of typographical and grammatical errors, and I was wondering if the publisher was intentionally retaining the feel of a blog by leaving such errors intact.

  14. Actually, disregard my last comment; I just looked at it again, with the aim of finding examples, and I found that some things I had originally taken as errors were actually my misunderstandings.

  15. Again, l hat, you’ve charmed me like the movement of that quavering flute that charms an earless cobra. Hell yes you get more out of reading a book than you do squint-reading off a god-damn eye-ruining computer screen. The printed word has been especially designed to allow the reader a comfortable yet streamliner-fast read. Reading a book on a computer screen is like reading a book on teevee, isn’t it. Can you imagine a teevee show where one of those airhead movie stars holds a book up to a zoomed-in camera? Recall the cartoon where it shows a bunch of bureaucrats emptying all the libraries of the world into a woodchipper-looking Internet machine? How the hell can you really get into a tale unless your nose is in a book, especially a leather-bound book; why the royals always had even the cheapest piece of crap novel bound in the finest calf’s leather or the best Moroccan-tanned leather straight from the back streets of the Casbah…it has to be a certain smell just right for the tale of the book its binding. I used to work in a bookstore and oh the joy of bookstore smells. I have distinct memories of how certain books smelled; even cookbooks smell to me like cookbooks. I believe I could easily be a blind bookseller. Even a Book-of-the-Month Club editon (oh, pleez, sir!) has a good booky smell to it.
    And then I came to the book you bought Far From the Maddening Gerund. Attack on Strunk and White. 3 cheers. Attack on that maddening Chicago Manual of Outmoded Styles–God how many years I fought that monster! Wonderful reading these dudes.
    A noun is a noun is a gerund.
    Standing on its own. So proudly. Gerunds after verbs, my dear–
    I prefer to practice what I predicate.
    When I’m on languagehat, I enjoy not having to get off of it early, although, When I am on language hat, I don’t enjoy having to get off it early.
    Viva languagehat (linquasombrero) en Cinco de Mayo!
    Ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf

  16. Speaking from experience, if you’re hosted on a university server, your admins and their bosses are loath to allow it to be pointed to from an external domain. Putting University DNSs into the resource records of a .com domain simply is not done. It’s like mixing milchig and fleishig.

  17. Thanks, Jonathan, that makes sense (in a bureaucratic way, not in the normal way that things make sense, since the .com domain is already sending traffic there). I suppose the company that’s hosting the frame page is the equivalent of a shabbas goy, or something.

  18. I did not know that. Thanks, Jonathan, and I withdraw my totally uncalled-for snark about cheap academics.

  19. LH, actually it redeems your snark about cheap academics, since the reason they’re not using the [rhymes with “romaine” but offends your spam filter] name properly is that they’re hosting the site on the (presumably free to them) university server rather than paying for a web host. My earlier comment that it wouldn’t cost them any more to do it properly was wrong because of the bureaucratic barriers.

  20. Thanks for telling us about this, Language Hat. It will make a good present for some people I know who love language but are unfamiliar with the site.
    But the real question is, when will we see a Language Hat book?

  21. Heh. That’s what my wife said. (Tom? You interested?)

  22. Neither is right or wrong; they’re simply two different habits of punctuating.
    On the contrary! Please excuse me, I have a terrible bee in my bonnet about this. The British style is objectively correct, as it allows for greater consistency when quoting something that itself contains terminal punctuation, in addition to being more logical all around. Observe, for instance, the following sentence, sighted in the wild (in J. David Velleman’s essay “The Way of the Wanton”):

    Of course, the thoughts symptomatic of thirst may include the first-personal thought “I’m thirsty,” but that thought is in the first instance an atomic expression of thirst, like smacking one’s lips or crying “Water!”, rather than a compositionally analyzable attribution of thirst to oneself.

    He writes “‘I’m thirsty,'”, but “‘Water!’,”. Ridiculous!
    Of course, I hold the view that of the following two sentences, the first is incorrectly punctuated:
    1. He asked, “where’s the library at, asshole?”
    2. He asked, “where’s the library at, asshole?”.
    The first one never ended!

Speak Your Mind