Accidence Will Happen: the Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage by Oliver Kamm, review: ‘full of ironies’

English language sticklers should relax and give our language the freedom it needs to flourish

 Properly wrong: outside Southern Guilford High School, Greensboro, North Carolina

Properly wrong: outside Southern Guilford High School, Greensboro, North Carolina Photo: AP Photo/News & Record, Joseph Rodriguez

What’s more aggravating for you: to hear someone say “aggravating” when they mean “irritating”, or to be told that you meant “irritating” when you said “aggravating”? If you’re among the latter, Oliver Kamm is on your side. He’s sick of Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne telling you that you can’t order a panini because panini is plural (are plural?), or that “enormity” isn’t about size but about badness. For Kamm, language is a matter of how it’s used and understood.

He divides commentators on language into linguists, who are goodies, and pedants, who are baddies. Linguists describe how language is at the moment; pedants prescribe how they think it should be. Kamm’s case against the pedants is compelling. They think that English is really Latin, only with different words, so that to them “aggravate” is really “ad graviorem”, meaning, towards something worse. They don’t notice when Thomas More or Milton use the word “infer” when nowadays we’re supposed to use “imply”. They peddle made-up rules about prepositions, and don’t appear to know how well written English managed without the possessive apostrophe for most of its history. In short, he wants these blighters to stop grinding you down.

It sounds like a liberating project, and he really does manage to make pedants look ridiculous. For example, it’s a treat to read that someone actually wrote: “A staggeringly large number of psychologists fail to appreciate that data should be followed by the plural form of verb.” Kamm loses no time in pointing out that by the same rule, “number” should take a singular verb form, and the nit-picker he quotes doesn’t do that.

That’s one of the book’s many ironies: in order to make us free to let our developing language flourish, he needs to out-pedant the pedants. In fact, I wasn’t aware that anyone had a problem with “aggravating” until I read this book. Imagine if Accidence Will Happen fell into the wrong hands. Then pedants would go about saying, “I know Oliver Kamm says we shouldn’t worry about it, but the smart people seem to be saying ‘none is’, rather than ‘none are’. Pass it on.”

The structure and premise of Kamm’s book do put him in a tricky position. The first part is a bullish and repetitive argument about how usage trumps rules, especially when people try to argue that those rules are logical. The second is a gazetteer of linguistic loopholes, in which Kamm proves himself to be expert at explaining the rules, before routinely heading for such pay-offs as, “You can use publically as a legitimate variant spelling” and, in the next entry, on questions, “Go with sense, not with strict syntax.”

But clearly Kamm has his own rules. He just doesn’t call them that. In his own half-tolerant way, he expresses dislike for the “comma splice” – that tic of separating things that are really individual sentences with nothing more than a comma. It’s a convention, he says, “but different from other conventions.” Yes – it’s a convention he wants you to observe. Which makes him prescriptive.

Now, in a way, Kamm is prescribing. He winningly quotes Emma Thompson, speaking at her old school. She begged her audience not to use “like” or “innit” as filler-words, saying: “Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.” His point is that we do need to know the conventions, and that teachers should continue to teach them, because children need to know how to avoid sounding stupid when they’re sending emails, writing personal statements for universities, or applying for jobs.

This leaves me confused. I’m one of those teachers. After reading Kamm’s book, I’m thinking that I should sound natural when speaking (I’d better stop saying “whom”, for instance), but should inculcate a few rules – sorry, conventions – in case they’re writing a letter to Truss. Kamm’s reply seems to be that what we really need to learn is when to use which register, be it standard or non-standard English, and to develop what examiners call “a sense of audience”. Still, as Kamm keeps reminding us, he’d be more than happy for the pickier parts of that audience to shut the hell up.

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


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