Friday, May 22, 2009

Things You Might Do If You’ve Already Mastered Your English

You are supremely confident that you have already mastered the English language all the way down to its deepest innards but (1) you find that you don’t have the talent to write a blockbuster novel or biography or history with it, or (2) you discover that you don’t have the personality or patience or the stage presence to continue teaching the hoary rules of English to rowdy and inattentive students, or, worse still, (3) you get too easily infuriated by bad English copy to hold on for long to a good-paying newspaper or magazine copyediting job.

I have a suspicion that any or all of the above might apply to the self-styled English grammar mavens who have been bashing the traditional rules of English grammar and usage lately, and that suspicion went several notches higher when I discovered that Prof. Geoffrey K. Pullum, the English linguist who has been skewering Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in the American media these past few weeks, himself had co-authored a slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners book on English usage three years ago with another linguist of apparently the same persuasion (they are both English grammar descriptivists as opposed to the prescriptivists).

That book is the 2006 paperback Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, which Prof. Pullum had co-written with Mark Liberman as lead author. Prof. Liberman, an American linguist, serves in twin capacities as trustee professor of phonetics and professor in the computer and information services department of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Pullum, a Briton who became an American citizen in 1987, had worked in visiting positions at the University of Washington and Stanford University, taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now works at the University of Edinburgh’s school of philosophy, psychology and language sciences.

Far from the Madding Gerund is actually a compilation of the linguistics duo’s irreverent essays on the English language in the popular website “Language Log,” where they are regular contributors. Just in case you are hearing it for the first time, “Language Log” is where professional linguists like Liberman and Pullum converge on the web to vent their spleen and poke fun at English misuse, and Far from the Madding Gerund was their well-meaning but, alas, too-hurried attempt to transport their language mayhem from web to print so non-netizens and laypeople can share in the merriment.

There’s little doubt that Far from the Madding Gerund is a rip-roaring read. It couldn’t be otherwise for a book that wickedly demonstrates that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is bad grammar advice, that the College Board is incapable of identifying errors in its own SAT, and that Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons fame—he’s one of their favorite punching bags—is a bad English prose stylist who messes up the very first sentence of The Da Vinci Code. But the problem, as Lisa Shea points out in her review of Far from the Madding Gerund, is that perhaps the material in the book would have been better left online with the links intact.

Shea explains: “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…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’.”

To me, however, an even more important concern about Far from the Madding Gerund and books of that genre is this: Other than delicious fun, what do we get from all this savage bashing of the English language? Would it actually make us better learners and users of English, or wouldn’t it ultimately lead us to a barbaric, no-rules, no-holds-barred English-usage zone from which there might be no return?

Read two excerpts from Far from the Madding Gerund:
Max Liberman: “Phineas Gage gets an iron bar right through the PP”
Geoffrey Pullum: “Without Washington’s support... who??”
Read Lisa Shea’s review of Far from the Madding Gerund
Read Daniel Jolley’s review of Far from the Madding Gerund
Read “The Dowdbot challenge,” Max Liberman’s May 18, 2009 post on “Language Log”

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