I've always been sort of a grammar freak (which is not to say I don't make my share of mistakes), but I now know I'm not quite ready to play with the big boys. Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum are definitely two of the big boys, and they do indeed like to play. That's part of the reason they started an online magazine called Language Log and began filling it with mini-essays, observations, and occasional rants on all sorts of grammatical topics. Their overriding goal was to reintroduce the general public to linguistics and the proper use of the English language. Even now, it sounds like a crazy dream -- after all, I certainly don't remember the last time a break room conversation at work turned into a debate over linguistics -- but I think it is safe to say the site has been wildly successful. It's not all that hard to see why. Liberman and Pullum are not your prototypical linguistics professors, and they don't write boring, pedantic, stodgy old posts about arcane topics. Instead, their writing is witty, pithy, sometimes surprisingly irreverent, and -- well -- fun. Most of their posts are borne of things they hear on the news, read in a book, come across on a web page, etc. Scholars by day -- working on articles that take months to appear in journals only those in the profession will likely ever read -- these fellows, as they readily admit, have a blast working on The Language Log, largely because the site affords them the luxury of instant publication, grants them the means to correspond with a growing readership of laymen genuinely interested in the proper use of language, and allows them to express ideas they could never truly address in a peer-reviewed journal. Far From the Madding Gerund is the natural outgrowth of their online mission, bringing together a wide range of Language Logs posts.
It's obvious how much these men love and care about linguistics, especially now that it is becoming a lost art in the world of academia. They want to communicate their own feelings for the subject matter to others and thereby help right some of the wrongs being perpetrated in the grammatical world of today. They are not knights defending a 19th-century treasure horde of golden rules, either. I was quite surprised by the flexibility and adaptability they show toward modern-day usage. The language changes constantly, and they are right there in the middle of it, warning us of the dangers and obstacles that lurk around each corner and shining the light of truth on those who would mislead us. They absolutely excoriate Strunk and White, long-recognized authority figures in the field, take copy editors to task for mangling perfectly acceptable grammar into highfaluting nonsense, and bemoan those who are propagating grammatical myths to many a student. Some of what they say goes against what I was taught, but the authors go to great lengths to defend their positions -- not only do they tell us that, to take one example, the commandment "thou shalt not split infinitives" is without merit, they explain why.
I had several different reactions to the information in this book. Early on, I was disheartened to find Pullum allowing for the fact that the singular they (one of my own biggest pet peeves) is becoming standard, but it just goes to show you how separated both authors are from prescriptivists who oppose any and all changes in the English language. Once they began arguing that split infinitives are perfectly OK, though, they had my full attention and maintained it all the way through the book's hilarious ending (several Pullum essays devoted to what he regards as the stylistic mess of mega-author Dan Brown's writing -- starting with the very first sentence of The Da Vinci Code).
Far From the Madding Gerund isn't a particularly easy read, however. While the authors are in many ways writing for the non-linguistic crowd, their essays are littered with linguistic terms I never knew or forgot the meanings of long ago (preterites, past and present subjunctives, etc.). On the other hand, most of the material they address comes from pop culture in the form of comments from government leaders, articles in newspapers, and well-known books of literature. They also make heavy use of Google searches as an unscientific yet demonstrative means of gauging the prevalent usage of certain words or phrases (proving that certain ones are far from the brink of extinction, no matter what others might say).
Before closing, I think it would behoove me to say that Liberman and Pullum are not grammar policemen; in fact, they have no use whatsoever for those who yell Gotcha and make a big deal out of every single grammatical mistake they come across (unless, of course, it's Dan Brown's). They will, however, pounce upon anyone they find corrupting young grammatical minds with completely wrong notions about the proper use of English. Through it all, their overriding goal is simply to show the public that linguistics is not only important, it can also be a lot of fun.