Magazine article The Spectator

'Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage', by Oliver Kamm - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage', by Oliver Kamm - Review

Article excerpt

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage Oliver Kamm

Weidenfeld, pp.301, £12.99, ISBN: 9780297871934

In a cheeringly Dickensian fashion, the names of our supposed experts on grammar imply they want to bind writers (Lynne Truss); send them awry (Kingsley Amis); besmirch their prose (H.W. Fowler); deafen them with moos (Simon Heffer); or snort at their legitimate constructions (John Humphrys).

At first glance, Oliver Kamm appears happy to keep them company. A leader-writer for the Times and its resident authority on style, Kamm is the most small 'c' conservative man I know. If he has ever left home without cleaning his shoes -- and I doubt that he has -- he would have realised his mistake before reaching the end of his road, and rushed back to apply the polish. Instead of joining the pedants, however, Kamm batters them. Accidence Will Happen is a joyous and joyously liberating assault on 'rules' of grammar which are little more than a hodgepodge of contradictory superstitions.

Kamm's weapons are erudition and raw polemical vigour. Berating people on superstitious stylistic grounds is worse than self-defeating, he says. 'It undermines the cause of clear writing and damages appreciation of the real study of language.'

There is no literate reason for thinking end-of-sentence prepositions are prepositions to be scared of. And no reason not to start sentences with 'and'. To shrilly insist on never splitting infinitives is to fall into the mistake first made by 18th-century grammarians that English is Latin. (It isn't, by the way.) 'The journalist was forced strenuously to insist he hadn't fiddled his expenses' is poor English. Does it mean the force used was strenuous or the denial was strenuous? Worse, like so many other pseudo-rules, it trips up writers and speakers, ties their tongues and dents their confidence

Unlike so many others who arbitrate on usage, Kamm relies on linguistic scholarship rather than the prohibitions of long-dead schoolmasters. No serious scholar believes that a language is anything other than what people write and speak. In language, you cannot be right against the world. If an 'incorrect' form is more widely understood than its alternative, it cannot be 'wrong'. There is no external judge who can pass a guilty sentence on common usage for a reason Dr Johnson understood when he rejected proposals for an English version of the Académie Française. …

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