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THE WORD

What do linguists do?

Hint: They're not language cops or polyglots

YOU KNOW, IT'S HARD out there for a linguist. ``People tend to say, `How many languages do you speak?' or `I'll have to be careful what I say around you,"' e-mails Geoff Pullum from Cambridge, where he's enjoying the waning weeks of a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute. The prescriptively minded may go further, he says, accusing linguists of an anything-goes indifference to the fate of our poor abused language.

Not true, any of it--but how to spread the word that linguists are not polyglots, language cops, or anarchists, but fact-seeking, fun-loving, rule-embracing folks? Three years ago, Pullum, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and fellow linguist Mark Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania, decided to use the Web as their pulpit; they started a ``little online magazine" called Language Log, languagelog.com, where they, and a dozen or so coconspirators, could chat about their field in (more or less) everyday language, letting curious readers see what linguists really get up to.

Language Log was a hit, and three years later, it has given birth to a book: ``Far From the Madding Gerund" (William, James & Co.) assembles many of Liberman and Pullum's posts, now grouped by topic, in an attractive paperback (already adorned with a blurb by this longtime Language Log fan). Yes, the collection sacrifices some of the virtues of its blog incarnation--completeness, clickability, timeliness, unbeatable price. But print, as any book lover will tell you, has compensating pleasures--and you can't tie a ribbon on a URL.

So what do linguists do? Well, in ``Madding Gerund," they don't trade worn-out witticisms about Americans parking in driveways and driving on parkways or the absurdity of English spelling. When they rant, they rant about more substantive issues.

Pullum, for instance, is annoyed that even now, 15 years after he dismantled the ``400-words-for-snow" legend in ``The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax," the media are still retailing nonsense about cultures and lexicons. When a ``60 Minutes" report claims that the Moken islanders off Thailand have ``no word for when," and hence ``no notion of time," he responds, ``I wish English had a word meaning `lazy journalist eagerly repeating hogwash about natural languages."'

Liberman, for his part, lambastes the SAT for forcing testees to guess its grammatical biases. Is ``The committee postponed their decision" an error-free sentence? Most authorities say yes: Committee, family, couple, and the like can be plural or singular nouns. But the SAT says no: Committee must be singular. Anyone who knows there are two correct answers to such questions ``deserves full credit," says Liberman. Instead, the best-informed test-takers must base their responses on ``a coin toss."

But linguists do more than just rant. Pullum proposes that dangling modifiers aren't, as a class, grammatical errors: Most of them ``slip by smoothly in context without anyone noticing them," so there's probably ``no rigid syntactic prohibition" of them built into English. That doesn't mean they can't be ludicrous and misleading, but that's a matter of sloppy, inconsiderate writing, he concludes--of ``manners, not grammar."

Liberman theorizes that overhearing cellphone chats is maddening not because of the noise, but because humans naturally try to divine other humans' mental states. When you hear half of a conversation, he says, ``you can't help yourself from trying to fill in the blanks. And after a few seconds of this, your paracingulate medial prefrontal cortex is throbbing like a stubbed toe."

Linguists also sleuth: In two guest posts, Ben Zimmer sets out to track the famous ``Churchill quotation" about the foolishness of tying sentences in knots to avoid ending them with prepositions--"nonsense up with which I will not put" and its many variations; he gets tantalizingly close to its source, unearthing a non-Churchillian version and several garbled variations before the current wording, with its Churchill attribution, appears in 1946.

In their capsule biographies, the authors reveal their youthful career detours: Liberman was kicked out of Harvard and sent to Vietnam, while Pullum, a high school dropout in England, worked as a rock musician. Linguistics saved them, they say, and ``linguistics can save you, too." Not, perhaps, from being sent to war or forced to live by your guitar pick; but linguistics, in this user-friendly form, really might help save you from boredom, complacency, and a multitude of misapprehensions about languages and linguists.

For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

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