Book review: Accidence will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, by Oliver Kamm

“Accidence will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage”
by Oliver Kamm
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February 2015
Hardback, 13.5 x 18.5 cm (5.4 x 7.3 in), 301 pp., £12.99
ISBN 978 0 297 87193 4
Available for Kindle (£8.31), and in the iTunes Store (£6.99).

The world of language is split into two camps: prescriptivists, such as Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots, & Leaves fame, and the infamous N M Gwynne, are pitted against those who view language as being determined primarily by usage, whether or not such usage conforms to arbitrary ‘rules of grammar’.

This little book puts the case against prescriptivism, then offers some useful tips about a range of issues in ‘Standard English’. Although these may appear to be contradictory aims, and the whole book an elaborate oxymoron, this is a balancing act which succeeds, and makes this guide to English valuable for a very wide readership, from schoolkids to hackneyed bloggers.

The first section, of 104 pages, steps through the shortcomings of, and copious arguments against, the prescriptivists. Although some of Kamm’s case is outlined in his Introduction and repeated later, this is cogently argued and appears impossible to rebut (although I am sure that we will see attempts from the prescriptivist camp). Kamm uses the wealth of evidence shrewdly, backed up by extensive source material and good references.

I wonder whether Kamm is a little too damning of the role of style guides here. He writes “show me a style guide and I’ll show you preferences smuggled in and depicted as rules”, for example, although the very phrase ‘style guide’ covers no more than a set of house conventions for a particular publisher, or similar. Style guides, even at their most pretentious, do not attempt to set rules for ‘Standard English’, but this book does claim to be a guide to style in ‘Standard English’ (and succeeds non-prescriptively).

There is a useful chapter on the history of prescriptive grammars which gives insight into the origins of modern pedantry. Although Kamm mentions (and rightly extols) Otto Jespersen’s and Huddleston & Pullum’s grammars, there is no balancing discussion of other enlightened references which the reader should use. Given that many of this book’s readers will be hoping to improve their English, I think that they would find it valuable to have a short section discussing classical and modern English grammars of quality. (This is a topic which I will return to here in the next week or two, I hope.)

If we are to pay attention to usage of English, then it might also have been helpful to have some pointers as to how an interested reader can gain more insight into that. Again, Huddleston & Pullum is an excellent start, and the OED essential, but there are now some wonderful resources that are freely available to the non-linguist, such as Google Ngrams, and online corpora.

The second and longer section, of 165 pages, covers a good range of issues in ‘Standard English’, from about to yourself. Kamm sticks to his guns here, and avoids being prescriptive, making this an essential reference for anyone who wants to write well.

His choice of items is at times a little idiosyncratic. For example, he has an entry for the word anent, which is as controversial as it is common. He has some little jokes too, as in his entry for Interjections. I thought the entry on Hyphenation a little shallow, as he does not broach the controversial area of compounds such as infra-red, and whether they should be hyphenated or written as a single word.

I think he wobbles on some words with important technical meanings, such as parameter, where a smidgin of prescriptivism might be important (against variable). His unfamiliarity with the more technical uses of discrete is a little surprising, and might disappoint those with more experience of technical writing. His suggestion to accept either spelling would not be acceptable there, for example anywhere near the large and important field of discrete mathematics.

However there are many lucid and excellent entries which every writer (and reader) of English should study. These include -gate, commas, may and might, and (singular) they.

To be extremely picky, but strongly usage-based, I also disagree with his contention that supercede is rare compared with supersede, which he prefers. A quick trip to Google Ngrams reveals that in a large British English corpus, the ratio of usage is 10:1, making supercede acceptably common.

My greatest reservation about his approach to English is that he overwhelmingly sees the language for publication, as his work for The Times is. Human language, including English, has also many very private purposes, and I think that it is these which give rise to such peevishness and pedantry.

If you were born and brought up in the Outer Hebrides, the chances are your Mother Tongue, the family language of your formative years, is Scottish Gaelic. For an Icelander, Icelandic, and for the Faroese, Faroese. Those of us whose Mother Tongue is English, of whatever flavour or dialect, have deep, emotional, and often ritual purposes for our English which clash with the whole concept of ‘Standard English’.

Just as some of us still cherish an old teddy bear from childhood, and engage in daily rituals which were inculcated in infancy, so we want our Mother Tongue to remain the same. The extraordinary persistence of archaic and now opaque varieties of English in the King James translation of the Bible attests to this.

Many indigenous languages, such as those in South America, Africa, and Australia, remain dominated by ritual processes. In some, for example, words are made taboo on the death of notable people. Language is central to ritual, social, and cultural processes in societies.

English as a Mother Tongue is a victim of its own success. Now that the majority who speak English have a different Mother Tongue, and linguistic exchange is so free and rapid by travel, migration, and the Internet, English is changing in ways that a Mother Tongue should not.

Kamm is obviously correct that such change is neither an apocalypse nor the death throes of the language. But for many whose Mother Tongue it is, peevishness, pedantry, and prescriptivism may be their only way to try to hang on to their private linguistic environment. There is no easy solution, and Truss, Gwynne, and their like only create more problems, of course.

I have enjoyed Oliver Kamm’s book, and will refer to it in the future. I recommend it for anyone who uses English, and most particularly for those like me who are lifelong learners of the language.