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Far from the Madding Gerund: And Other Dispatches from Language Log Paperback – May 18 2006
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About the Author
Geoffrey K. Pullum earned his B.A. in Language at the University of York in 1972 and his Ph.D. in General Linguistics at the University of London four years later. After teaching at University College London for seven years he moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he served as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research for six years and is currently Professor of Linguistics. He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in 1990 91. His numerous publications cover not only syntactic theory and English grammar but also on a large number of other topics in linguistics. His books include Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (1985, with Gazdar, Klein, and Sag) and a collection of satirical essays on linguistics, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991).
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I found a lot of really interesting information pieces in here. There's discussion about Dan Brown and the DaVinci Code, and the many flaws in Dan's writing style. There is commentary about various political leaders. There are nit-picky (to most of us, at least) arguments about how often X word is used instead of Y word. It's interesting that as "proof" they turn to Google to see which is used most often. Since a large number of web pages are created by illiterate young teenagers, I don't think I'd ever use a random Google search as a sign of anything :) Heck, if we went by Google, then the most important issues facing the world today involve Paris Hilton and a baby born in Africa.
But the real problem I had with the book, while it's a really cool concept, is that it is pretty much a verbatim dump of the blog. I'm talking straight to the book, with sentences such as:
"Follow-ups in our pages and elsewhere (here, here, here, here, here) discussed many cases of developments of a different kind ..."
The five "heres" are all in light grey text, meaning a little sidebar gives a one-line summary of that thread's topic and then gives you a (I kid you not) 63 character long URL that you have to type in to see what the reference is. On a blog, this works fine - you hit the link and go read the reference. In a book?? You completely miss half the story. This doesn't just happen once a chapter. It happens over 10 times on some pages, and is happening pretty much on EVERY page. I found it a little amusing at first - but as I worked my way through the book, it got more and more frustrating. If you are interested by the topic, the whole point is that you want to understand what they're saying - and you are unable to because they don't provide the content. They just say "Go read it elsewhere, manually, later on".
I'm not saying the book is uninteresting - I read it through in an afternoon (when I suppose I should have been writing web content). But that's part of the problem. The topics of the book ARE interesting - but you are constantly being bombarded with messages about "and the rest of the story can be found online here ..."
I suppose you could pose the argument that, had they included the related posts, the book would have been much larger. On the other hand, the chapters are completely unrelated to each other. The Dan Brown content has nothing at all to do with the Monkeys Typing Shakespeare content. Or maybe they are related (grin). In any case, they could easily have made a book on ONE of the topics presented, and presented it fully, so you got all of the meaning. They could have had an editing team summarize the related posts, if they didn't feel like including them fully, so that you received all the meaning while you went. However, as it stands, it feels like giant chunks of the book are missing. It really does make you wonder, just why am I reading this in book form? If I was going to do this, maybe I should have just gone online and read it there, where it is in fact a linked blog, instead of putting up with this disjointedness.
When I finished the last page, I wondered what I had really learned here. Maybe it was that blogs are meant by their nature to be read online, with links intact. Maybe it was that the book was really just a way to make quick money without having to write any new content at all - they hit "print screen", sent it to a publisher, and were done. Maybe they didn't have time to actually edit and work on "a book". I also had to wonder if the book was Funded By Google, given the huge amount of credence given to what is, in essence, just a search engine. As much as I love Google and use it daily, I would never consider it to be a serious research tool without applying some rather serious filters to the sites being used.
In any case, maybe I'll actually go visit the Language Log website someday, where I can read the content for free, with links intact. But since that would seem to be a multi hour time sink, maybe it's better that I keep my addiction level low while I still have free will.
Then I began reading the book. On page 5, Strunk and White are called "perennially clueless." And it gets better from there. I gleefully tossed my ancient copy back into the hole from which I had pulled it, and settled in for an enjoyable read. I also promptly subscribed the the RSS feed for The Language Log -- which only makes sense. The book is a collection of posts from the blog. Not just random posts, though, but a "best of" compilation that fans of The Language Log will enjoy. It will quickly get newcomers hooked on the blog.
But the target audience is not language pedants -- those people who never split their infinitives, or dangle their participles. Those people who know that a preposition is not the sort of thing with which to end a sentence. In fact, Liberman and Pullum will raise the ire of liguistic prescriptivists. They split infinitives. They break rules. And they make people think and laugh at the same time, which is important.
Just a few examples of targets that get skewered in the book (and on the blog):
* Those who mock George W. Bush for his "Bushisms": there is, in fact, a standing invitation for author Jacob Weisenberg to join Liberman for dinner (Liberman's treat) at the restaurant of Weisenberg's choice, provided that the conversation can be taped and studied for "howlers" that would later be published in a book of "Weisbergisms."
* Best-selling author Dan Brown: Brown is taken to task for his repetitive plotlines ("[t]he simple fact is that if you are ever mentioned on page 1 of a Dan Brown novel you will be mentioned with an anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier ... and you will have died a painful and horrible death by page 2, along with several curiously ill-chosen cliches and mangled idioms" is just one example of their criticism of Brown's writing). It's refreshing to read someone who doesn't like Dan Brown because he's not a good writer. Popularity does not mean quality, and Liberman and Pullum are quick to point out the syntactic flaws in Brown's works. And yes, they've read them all.
The point of much of the book is that rules, including grammatical ones, are meant to be guidelines. They aren't engraved in stone, and often need to be broken so that someone can make their point.
A point needs to be made about the whole "blog as book" idea. One of the things that has always worried me about blogs turning into books is how the use of hyperlinks would be handled. Footnotes are one obvious solution, but constantly looking down at the bottom of the page to check what the footnote is about can get tedious, especially when there are a lot of notes. Liberman and Pullum avoid this by using light gray lettering (rather than black) for links, and placing the corresponding URLs in the outside margin of the page, next to the referral. This makes checking the link content a lot easier, and if it's not a standard procedure for blogs-turned-books, it should be.
Far From the Madding Gerund is a fun book, and an interesting look into linguistics. The study of language doesn't have to be boring - it can even be fun.
Written in a casual style that makes the faux pas revelations more cogent, the authors share embarrassingly poor writing from the media, from authors, from those in control of the country (as though the mentality of the US might somehow be reflected in the malapropisms of George W. ...Yikes!), and yet reading this blogline of information never seems vitriolic. Criticism is one of the most substantial ways to create change and hopefully this book and blogline will focus many minds on the misuse of the English language, perhaps effecting some much needed corrections.
FAR FROM THE MADDING GERUND (didn't you always wonder why Thomas Hardy used that word in the title of his great novel 'Far from the Madding Crowd'?) is a book to pleasure the mind - and humor - and a fine resource for perusing before writing or speaking to a group of wise souls. So maybe it is a print form of a blogline, but for those of us who tire of wading through the computer for reading, it is a complete (?compleat?) pleasure! Grady Harp, June 06
I'm not a blog person, preferring the feel of a crisp piece of paper between my fingers (and the computer is a trifle uncomfortable and hard to balance for reading in bed), but be warned that the information here is taken directly from the internet, and it contains links which unfortunately can't yet be accessed from printed pages.
Written by the aforementioned duo, who happen to be Professors of Linguistics, this book aims to share observations about everyday topics like the quality of Dan Brown's writing style, Bushisms, popular malapropisms (say that six times fast - I dare you), grammar and the rules of writing fiction, but targets the more general audience of the linguistically-challenged.
For a preview of the content of the book you can always check the website, but if you've a yen for the printed word, this is a handy reference tool.
Amanda Richards, June 24, 2006
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