Book review:

Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English Usage by Oliver Kamm

Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2015, 320 pages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just to show you all that I've really got the book.

 

'There are Englishes... all of which conform to grammatical rules. Standard English is one form of the language.'

Oliver Kamm, Accidence will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage

 

I have been quoting his name (Oliver Kamm) and his book throughout the website, particularly in the news section and, more recently, in updates to my 'Split Infinitive' feature, so I though I had better actually have a look at the book and see what exactly it is about. It arrived last Friday and I have spent my weekend being entertained by it.

 

A quick biography: Oliver Kamm is a writer and journalist, and is a columnist for The Times, penning a regular article called The Pedant, from which this book is largely inspired. He is also the son of translator Anthea Bell, who amongst other books, has worked on the Asterix and Nicholas series originally written by Rene Goscinny.

 

So what is the book exactly about? It is not only a guide to grammar and style, but about grammar pedants who are, when it comes to the English language, believe that they are always RIGHT. They are very loud, very noisy, and are unable to accept the other point of view as regards the use of grammar, even if there is evidence that proves them wrong.

 

Take this quote as an example, which can also be found in the book: 'It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.' http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Humphrys

 

It is those kind of comments that would even get me ranting. And John Humphrys is an author, journalist and presenter on radio and televsion. So John, how should we stop them? Prison sentences? Ban mobile phone text messages? As Oliver Kamm himself points out, texting is simply another evolution of the language. Anyway, it is non-standard English, so we know - and I am sure that the vast majority of teens (with the odd exception) are aware of this - that we would certainly not use it in prose writing, unless our target audience expects it. Yes, there are people out there - linguists, writers, broadcasters, publishers - who tell us that English has rules and that we must keep to them in all areas of life. Writing. Speaking. Listening. To not do so is a crime which, given Mr. Humphrys' tone, is to be punished severely. Kamm makes the point more than once that English is an evolving language and comes in many different forms. There are different versions. Different styles. Different dialects. But, he argues, all are as legitimate as the other. English, he says, has never been healthier.

 

The book is in two parts. The first deals with Kamm's view on the language and its current state, and the fact that those who complain have not actually done any research, or their views are based on some rules that, in Kamm's words, have been dreamt up by eighteenth-century enthusiasts. He is not afraid to name those pedants, many of them being present-day, high-profile individuals in the history of the language. And as he has named them, so will I: Ambrose Bierce, Michael Dummett, H.W. Fowler (although Kamm adds that he does so with some humour), Kingley Amis, James Cochrane, John Humphrys, Simon Heffer, The Economist style guide (A business magazine: some of its material is used in Pearson-Longman's 'Intelligent Business' coursebooks for learners of English!), N.M. Gwynne, Bryan Garner, Sir Ernest Gowers/Rebecca Gower, and even Bill Bryson. Roger Hartopp's book came out too late, but I hope that my book has not come across as 'pedantic', although I will admit that there might be examples that give such an impression, such as the one about double negatives. If so, sorry...

 

Kamm cites several examples from history, with many of the pedants' complaints being based on those publications from the 19th and 20th centuries which aimed to state 'rules' that were, in fact, based on the opinions of the authors of the time rather than by any solid linguistic evidence. Indeed, many of those earlier problems lie with the fact that in those days English was being compared to the classical languages such as Latin and Greek, and that it should follow similar grammar rules, such as not splitting the infinitive. What really annoys Kamm - and I sympathise here - is that for many of the pedants (surely not all?) take the view that these rules should not apply only to written English. Many of these rules should apply to spoken English too. They will correct you if you dare to say 'Me and my family are going abroad for the weekend'. Now that must really annoy most of their friends, or else they do not have any friends who I am sure, when relaxed, will slip into the vernacular that they are familiar with. (I am pretty sure the pedants themselves will do the same.) And then they will be hanged by the neck until they say it properly. And in case you are wondering, hanged is correct when referring to a person; hung is usually for an object. But you can use either. It is a variant in the language.

 

The second part is a list of usages that are disputed. Here, there are many that can be found in standard English; the split infinitive of course, along with none (which can be singular or plural), bright (which is also an adjective and an adverb, and was the subject of a widely-covered story), and putting the word however at the start of sentences. It is also okay to begin sentences with and or even a preposition. Or even begin a sentence with or. Or end a sentence with a preposition, such as the sentence in brackets () in the previous paragraph.

 

Accidence will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage is a book that I have to admit I have two hats on here - my native speaker hat and my teaching hat. Firstly, on a personal note, I agree with him on everything in there. English is an evolving language. It is continually changing. There are instances where certain words and grammar usage were fashionable in the past and perhaps less so now, and there are instances where there are functions that have now become trendy, such as texting. But usually those who use these Englishes know what they are saying and understand each other. The book is also written in a casual prose to ensure it gets a wide audience and for that it is an entertaining read. I absolutely detest books written in an academic prose that are not aimed at academic people. They are incredibly dull, full of self-importance, and give me the impression of 'look at me! I am brilliant at the English language'!

 

Now, as a teacher of English as a second language, I try to take on two approaches: the pedagogical, where I teach according to the coursebooks available to me and that use what we call Standard English, but also the descriptive - to make students aware of any colloquailisms, dialects and expressions that native speakers use. But not too much: to spend too much time on the latter would not be of benefit to the student, most of who come to me to learn what they understand as Standard English. In my case, Standard British English. That is the English I have to focus on with my students as for them, this is the English they want to be familiar with. So as a non-native I can quite happily accept someone saying 'I was sat in the front row'; this is non-Standard English but is commonly spoken, but if a student were to write this in a formal test, they would be marked down as this is not 'Standard English' (unless they are using a quote).

 

But Kamm does remind us - as I do so in my foreward of my book - that '...no-one is in charge of the language'. 

 

So I will give it five stars as a native speaker and linguist, but four stars as a foreign language instructor. For the learners of English, well, stay with the coursebooks - this book is at its best if you really want to study the language, particularly if you are into pedagogics - but I would not really advise it as an addition to your language lessons.

 

Reviewed by Roger Hartopp

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