David Foster Wallace once invented an organization called the “Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts” whose members boycott stores with signs reading “10 items or less.” It was a joke (from the novel Infinite Jest), but it’s not too far-fetched. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book that took as its primary subject the misuse of various punctuation marks, became an international best seller a few years ago, and on bookstore shelves today it has plenty of company: Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English; The Grouchy Grammarian; The Dictionary of Disagreeable English; Lapsing Into a Comma, and so forth.
These books tend to be written by prescriptivists—people who would dictate how language should be used. Descriptivists—those who would describe how language is actually used—have rarely had such eloquent (or prolific) spokesmen. As a result, they’re often ridiculed. Wallace, who himself is a somewhat militant grammarian, has argued that descriptivism is hopeless as a scientific endeavor: Using what people actually say and write to determine appropriate English usage is, he says, like writing an ethics textbook based on what people actually do. But descriptive linguists have finally found persuasive champions in Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum, who have collected a series of essays from their blog Language Log into a new book, Far From the Madding Gerund.
The two bring usefully different styles to their arguments. Pullum, a syntactician at UC-Santa Cruz and currently a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard, can be vicious (and very funny), whether criticizing inept usage or demolishing prescriptivist myths. Liberman, a phonetician at Penn, takes a more data-driven approach, analyzing modern vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar with custom-written computer scripts and plain old Google.