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Despite some considerable skepticism, we recently reviewed a book based on a blog, Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer, that was shockingly good. That though was a novel and had a number of advantages that stand out in even starker contrast when compared to this useful, but flawed, collection of pieces from the Language Log blog. The authors here are linguistic professors and at Language Log they dissect the daily news from the perspective of proper grammar, vocabulary, usage, etc. Speaking from experience, I can state that picking apart the ideas in a column or article is fun on the day it's published, but by the time the fish are wrapped it amounts to a fairly insignificant exercise. It inevitably seems even more picayune then to haggle over a turn of phrase within said story. Another frustration here is that not only are the posts rich in links, which obviously aren't hyper-links in a book, but they're dependent, as are most nblog posts, on an initial story from another source, which obviously can't be reprinted here. Finally, the authors have certain axes they like to grind, a tendency which enlivens a blog, where the tirades are spaced out over time, but which doesn't work quite as well in book form, when one follows another.

All that said, there is also too much here that should be preserved and that is well worth reading for the reader not to enjoy the book. Happily, you can easily check on-line to see if it's the sort of thing you'll like. One of the fun ones is Mr. Liberman's challenge to Jacob Weisberg, triggered by the notoriously insipid nit-picking of the Bushisms column at Slate, to allow his own conversation to be recorded for a few hours and then deconstructed, You say Nevada, I say Nevahda (Mark Liberman, January 03, 2004, Language Log). Or try Mr. Pullum's piece on Churchill's famous objection to the rule that a sentence shouldn't end in a preposition, A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put (Geoffrey K. Pullum, December 08, 2004, Language Log). Those give some sense of the fun to be had here. Also entertaining is the derision they heap on standard tropes like the asinine notions that animals -- monkeys, dogs, dolphins, what have you -- have developed vocabularies and language skills or that the Eskimo have many more words for snow than we do, while the Inuit, or whoever, have no word for money, or whatever. The thing I like best though is that the authors pay particular attention to the way people actually talk and write in determining what is acceptable English. They take delight in savaging Strunk and White, pointing out that it doesn't even follow its own rules and they use Google to brilliant effect, demonstrating the prevalence of word usages that mavens may criticize as unusual or improper and frequently showing that, even as some rules were being codified, the very best English writers were already transgressing them regularly. We needn't speak like Shakespeare or the King James Bible, but it takes some temerity to insist that aping the masters is verboten.

Perhaps the best way to approach this book is with a predetermined strategy for reading it. Dip into it for an essay or two, not for huge swathes in extended reading. Refer to the authors website when you find one you especially like, so that you can follow the links in the original. and, most importantly, start reading their site every day, so you can get their material when it's fresh and properly formatted.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

See also:

Reference Books
Mark Liberman Links:

    -BLOG: Language Log
    -Language Log (Wikipedia)
    -AUTHOR SITE: GEOFFREY K. PULLUM (Professor of Linguistics and Distinguished Professor of Humanities, University of California, Santa Cruz, and currently Constance E. Smith Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)
    -BOOK SITE: far from the Madding Gerund (WH Smith)
    -ESSAY: Harry Potter and the Madding Gerund: Secrets of the Language Log Code (Geoffrey K. Pullum, April 17, 2006, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: You say Nevada, I say Nevahda (Mark Liberman, January 03, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: An editorial conflict of interest at Slate? (Mark Liberman, June 22, 2006, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put (Geoffrey K. Pullum, December 08, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: The Dan Brown code (Geoffrey K. Pullum, May 1, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Ray Charles, America, and the subjunctive (Geoffrey K. Pullum, July 4, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification (Geoffrey K. Pullum, January 30, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Can Derrida be "even wrong"? (Mark Liberman, September 29, 2003, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Far from the madding gerund (Mark Liberman, December 05, 2003, Language Log)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Language Log: Co-founder of the site Geoff Pullum, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, discusses "Far from the Madding Gerund" (Here and Now, September 01, 2006)
    -PROFILE: What Linguists Talk About When they Talk about Language (The Pennsylvania Gazette, 08/31/06)
    -ESSAY: Corpus colossal: How well does the world wide web represent human language? (The Economist, Jan 20th 2005)
    -REVIEW: of Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K Pullum (Michael Quinion, World Wide Words)
    -REVIEW: of Far From the Madding Gerund (Warren Kelly, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Far from the Madding Gerund (Robert Lane Greene, Slate)

Geoffrey Pullum Links:

    -BLOG: Language Log
    -Language Log (Wikipedia)
    -AUTHOR SITE: GEOFFREY K. PULLUM (Professor of Linguistics and Distinguished Professor of Humanities, University of California, Santa Cruz, and currently Constance E. Smith Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University)
    -BOOK SITE: far from the Madding Gerund (WH Smith)
    -ESSAY: Harry Potter and the Madding Gerund: Secrets of the Language Log Code (Geoffrey K. Pullum, April 17, 2006, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: You say Nevada, I say Nevahda (Mark Liberman, January 03, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: An editorial conflict of interest at Slate? (Mark Liberman, June 22, 2006, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: A Churchill story up with which I will no longer put (Geoffrey K. Pullum, December 08, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: The Dan Brown code (Geoffrey K. Pullum, May 1, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Ray Charles, America, and the subjunctive (Geoffrey K. Pullum, July 4, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification (Geoffrey K. Pullum, January 30, 2004, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Can Derrida be "even wrong"? (Mark Liberman, September 29, 2003, Language Log)
    -ESSAY: Far from the madding gerund (Mark Liberman, December 05, 2003, Language Log)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Language Log: Co-founder of the site Geoff Pullum, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, discusses "Far from the Madding Gerund" (Here and Now, September 01, 2006)
    -PROFILE: What Linguists Talk About When they Talk about Language (The Pennsylvania Gazette, 08/31/06)
    -ESSAY: Corpus colossal: How well does the world wide web represent human language? (The Economist, Jan 20th 2005)
    -REVIEW: of Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K Pullum (Michael Quinion, World Wide Words)
    -REVIEW: of Far From the Madding Gerund (Warren Kelly, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Far from the Madding Gerund (Robert Lane Greene, Slate)

Book-related and General Links:

    -BLOG: Language Hat
    -World Wide Words (Michael Quinion)
    -ARCHIVES: "nathan bierma" (Chicago Tribune)

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