Two years ago, academics who signed a letter attacking the new national curriculum were awarded the inaugural Bad Grammar Award
. With smug superiority, the self-appointed arbiters of English grammar judged the letter to be ‘simply illiterate’. One judge, Toby Young said:
'The 100 educators have inadvertently made an argument for precisely the sort of formal education the letter is opposing.'
But, according to Accidence Will Happen: the non-pedantic guide to English Usage by Oliver Kamm, a Times columnist and writer about the English language, most of the pedants’ rules are wrong.
Grammar, Kamm argues, concerns such things as word order, how to construct plurals and tenses, and correspondence of subject and verb. But when sticklers mock someone’s use of English grammar they are more often talking about punctuation, linguistic changes (always abhorred) and ‘rules’ devised a couple of centuries ago by style guide authors catering for a growing middle class concerned about speaking and writing correctly.
These shibboleths attempted ‘to force English to conform with Latin syntax’ - if followed absolutely they would result in tortured, unnatural and dull prose.
Kamm punctures the sticklers’ myths. The book’s first half argues that far from being in terminable decline, the English language, a living language, is in robust good shape. Children in English-speaking homes pick up English grammar without having to receive formal lessons in ‘correct’ English.
It’s more important for children to learn the importance of register – when it’s appropriate to use Standard English and when it’s OK to be informal – than to receive instruction in when to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’, about not splitting infinitives and why flat adverbs are unacceptable.
The second half is a guide, in alphabetic order, to words that cause confusion. On ‘who’ and ‘whom’, for example, Kamm advises any writer in doubt to stick with ‘who’. ‘Nobody but a stickler will fault you for anything worse than informality, and that is no sin,’ he writes.
‘Shibboleths are not rules of grammar, let alone marks of civilisation,’ Kamm argues. ‘The sticklers’ cause is not about culture but about class’.
By criticising someone who falls foul of these decrees, sticklers are loudly proclaiming their superiority over more ignorant mortals. They revere a supposed ‘correctness’ over content; they hone in on supposed ‘errors’ to mock and jeer. That’s not to say anything goes, that incorrect spellings shouldn’t be corrected or errors like ‘must of’ instead of ‘must have’ should be ignored. Kamm is insistent that Standard English needs to be taught – to be ignorant of it is a handicap. But the shibboleths he condemns are not Standard English – they are arbitrary rules spread through ‘ill-informed’ commentary.
According to Kamm, some of the worst offenders lack self-awareness and have an inflated sense of their own importance: ‘It’s not only the pedants’ lack of linguistic inquisitiveness that’s dispiriting; it’s the smallness of their world’. Their attitude is ‘a sort of faith-based approach, analogous to biblical fundamentalism’.
Kamm is particularly scornful of Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English
by N M Gwynne, one of Toby Young’s fellow Bad Grammar Award judges. Kamm dismisses the book,praised by ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove, in a few withering words: ‘a work of titanic silliness’. He mocks the Daily Telegraph
’s ‘good grammar quiz
’ which Gwynn wrote. Kamm describes it as ‘evidence of the sticklers’ incomprehension’. He quotes one of the questions:
‘Which of these sentences is grammatically correct? A ‘Do you see who I see’ or B ‘Do you see whom I see?’
The correct answer, according to the Telegraph
, is B. But it isn’t, writes Kamm, because native English speakers don’t talk like this. It sounds ‘prissy’.
I’ve taken the quiz (and failed). It asks readers to identify such things as whether a word in a sentence is an ‘Adverb qualifying an adjective-phrase’ or an ‘Adverb qualifying an adverb’. Such questions do not create a love of English. They reduce English to a tedious naming of the parts instead of engendering an appreciation of the whole
. And the last quiz question isn’t about English at all. It asks whether two girls’ names are ‘the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported direct from Latin’.
Accidence Will Happen is a necessary corrective to tenets promoted by nit-picking pedants. Armed with Kamm’s sensible advice, we can snort at those whose aim is not to instruct but to humiliate. I echo the words of blogger Stroppy Editor: ‘The exorcism of bogus rules is the purpose of Kamm’s book, and I commend it.’