Oliver Kamm’s English usage guide poleaxes the pedants Gove admired

Janet Downs's picture
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.’
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 09:18

Write on, Janet!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 09:46

I think you'll enjoy 'Grammar Rumble', a 50's Greasers Sketch sending up some of the shibboleths. (Or should that be 'a 50's Greasers' Sketch'? But that's punctuation, not grammar. And I started the last sentence with a preposition...).

Apologies for the advert - skip as soon as possible.

Terence Denman's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 15:09

"But" is a conjunction, not a preposition. Just saying. There is a very funny youtube sketch on the "Grammar Nazis" in the style of a Quentin Tarrintino (?) film.

My own "How not to write", published a few years ago, destroyed all the pedantic myths about grammar. Sold about 10 copies. Am I bitter? Yep.

Gwynne is a very unpleasant man indeed. Wrong about a lot more things than grammar. For details, email Terence.

Tessa Thomas's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 16:16

Take heart, Terence: I own a copy and, having just taken if off the shelf and dusted it down, I see it's peppered with sticky annotated bookmarks, ergo pearls of wisdom. As I'm shortly delivering writing skills lectures to tongue-tied undergraduates, I shall revisit it forthwith...

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 16:33

And I've found it's possible to buy used copies on Amazon for 1p + £2.80 postage and packing.

Terence Denman's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 17:04

Tessa and Janet

I am sitting in a bar in Almeria, Spain. And, although the English are renowned as a cold, unemotional race, I'm not ashamed to say that tears are flowing down my cheeks and into the old cerveza. You have made an old man very happy. You were one of the 10 people that bought a copy, before that pampered scribbler Kamm and his fancy friends in high places took his book to the top of the charts. No one reviewed me in the TLS. No one reviewed me in the Finsbury Gazette. Pearls before swine.

If you were (I really want to use "was" there, and wind up Gwynne) here, I would buy you both a drink out of my paltry royalties. I still have my bitterness, but its edges are not so sharp.

I take your point about "but" Janet. When I have thought of a witty response, I will send it. When the tears have dried ...


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 16:32

Terence - I have consulted Fowler's (revised by Gowers) and I'm not much wiser about whether 'But' is a preposition or a conjunction in my sentence above. Fowler's allows for doubt when 'but' means 'except': 'The question is whether b[ut] in this sense is a preposition and should always take an objective case...or whether it is a conjunction, and the case after it is therefore variable.' (I am beginning to groan...)

In the circumstances I think I should have avoided naming what part of speech 'But' was and just said, 'And I started the last sentence with But...'

I was taught never start a sentence with And. But I do.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/05/2015 - 07:20

Tez - gracias, mi amigo. Quiero leer tu libro. (I'm learning Spanish - less complicated for spelling and grammar than English).

Patrick Hadley's picture
Tue, 26/05/2015 - 11:02

Thanks for the tip, I have just ordered a copy of "How Not to Write" for 1p + postage.

Incidentally Janet, since you are learning Spanish, in case you have not tried them can I recommend Duolingo.com and the audio course "Complete Spanish" which you can download from LanguageTransfer.org . Both are completely free and are suitable for beginners, but useful for most people who are not already fluent.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/05/2015 - 18:32

Gracias, Patrick. My Spanish learning has come almost to a halt. I like watching the BBC's Mi Vida Loca (I've worked through the BBC's Talk Spanish 1 and 2) - it's fun. I'll certainly have a look at Duolingo.

agov's picture
Tue, 26/05/2015 - 12:30

I was just in time to get the last copy from that particular supplier!

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 27/05/2015 - 21:48

Thank you Janet I appreciated the article

I think one of the problems with the comprehensive system is not distinguishing register for pupils and teachers

Know what I mean darling?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 12:51

Ben - I'm glad you appreciated the article but it's rather a sweeping generalisation to say it's a problem with the whole comprehensive system that there is no distinguishing of register.

There are, of course, gradations of formality and times when it's appropriate to be less formal and times when it definitely isn't. It's a matter of judgement and context. And it's passing on the importance of judgement that Kamm says is more relevant than teaching bogus rules.

FJM's picture
Thu, 28/05/2015 - 21:44

'Modern English Usage' (Fowler) is well worth having. Because it annoys some people, I love to split an infinitive, and then quote Fowler to support both of my so-called errors in this sentence.
Worse than minor grammatical errors is the constant use of like, stuff, amazing, fantastic, incredible etc. etc. We should help children to avoid these over-used words.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 12:42

FJM - I, too, have Fowler's. It's unclear if Gove had a copy when he decreed the subjunctive should be included in primary school Programmes of Study. I'm sure the PoS examples, such as 'Father demanded that we not go to the forest') would have Kamm crying with laughter.

However, your list of 'over-used' words isn't a matter of grammar - it's vocabulary. I know - I'm being pedantic.

FJM's picture
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 12:58

I didn't claim that the overuse of such words is a grammatical error, but that it is worse than minor grammatical errors. You inferred what I did not imply, which leads me on to another pet hate: the misuse of words with different meanings as though they had the same meaning. Examples include disinterested & uninterested, imply & infer and refute & deny.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 13:41

FJM - I missed the significance of 'worse than minor grammatical errors'. Apologies. I was influenced by Kamm's argument that many who complain about supposed grammar errors are really talking about spelling, punctuation and vocabulary.

Kamm does not share your concerns about the different meanings attributed to the words you mention. He points out, for example, that the first OED citation for 'disinterested' in the sense of 'not interested' cited John Donne writing in 1631. Kamm points out the OED's first citation for 'disinterested' in the sense of impartial is from 1659. Kamm discusses 'disinterested' an 'uninterested' over one-and-a-half pages ending with: 'It's not enough for the sticklers to be smug about their own command of language. They apparently have some temperamental need to denounce those who don't conform to their own usage. If you wish to use disinterested in the sense of bored, you can.'

Kamm discusses 'imply' and 'infer' over two-and-a-half pages - two pages are given to 'refute, deny, rebut'. He describes the distinction between the latter three words os 'among the principal causes of sticklerdom'.

Terence Denman's picture
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 14:50

FJM sounds more and more like an old-school pedant and more and more like Gwynne. I'm not sure he gets the point of Kamm's book. Has he read it? He'll be complaining about Americanisms and texting soon. They always do.

They definitely need to teach some modern linguistics in schools. About one person in a thousand who pontificates on grammar seems to know anything about it. You won't find it in Fowler's.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 18:35

And now the new Scrabble dictionary! I dare not express my view of it in this thread.

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