Oliver Kamm is my new god. At least where the so-called ‘rules of grammar’ are concerned anyway.
For a long time, my sole useful guide to grammar and style which sat on my desk was Fowler’s (I also have the Oxford Manual but find that less helpful). Recently I added my beloved Bill Bryson’s ‘Mother Tongue’ as a fascinating tour through the English language. Now I’ve added Kamm’s ‘Accidence Will Happen’ even though, interestingly, he cites Bryson five times and criticises him each time. I am nothing if not forgiving.
His book is a brilliant rebuttal of pretty much everything the grammar nazis and pedants stand for while also giving good solid advice about language issues which matter. Kamm’s work scores for several reasons:
* He’s extremely funny and not in the slightest bit dry making the book a delight to read;
* He’s articulate, convincing and provides copious quantities of evidence to back every claim;
* Despite seeming almost anarchical about grammar he’s actually a moderate.
This last point is actually very important to me and Kamm has been able to put into words the issue I’ve struggled with for some time as a writer – namely, a great distrust of the old (and new) ‘gold standards’ of how to write yet an unwillingness to let go of things important to me.
The book is split into two parts: The first is Kamm’s treatise on why the pedants have got it wrong (including a ten-point list of where the ‘sticklers’, as Kamm calls them, have made errors in their principles); the second is a handy dictionary of common grammar sticking points including use of apostrophes, ending sentences with prepositions, the split infinitive, double negatives and pretty much every issue you can imagine.
His arguments make great sense and, as I say, articulate what I’ve been feeling for some time. In essence he says this: that grammar changes over time and is controlled by common use and not by the dictate of pedants. Effectively his advice is, if it feels right then it’s ok to use. He argues coherently that almost all ‘rules’ were invented by individuals for no good reason other than opinion or incorrect understanding of etymology. Indeed, he even argues that using etymology at all as an argument for what a word should mean is also incorrect and, again, proves his point repeatedly. His arguments are common sense and rooted in historical fact making them all but indisputable. Certainly he obliterates the arguments and examples of John Humphrys and Simon Heffer (and I feel certain he is off their Christmas card lists now).
Does this mean we should no longer teach the rules of grammar in schools and so on? Not at all, says Kamm. It’s horses for courses. We still have different styles of writing and knowing the idioms, customs and rules for these are important – say if needing to write a formal letter or academic piece of writing. But these are cases of using ‘Standard English’ as opposed to ‘Non-standard English’. They’re not right or wrong, says Kamm, just different.
Kamm loves the English language and cares about its use. But he doesn’t believe the language is in decline or that it is essential to defend it lest it falls. English is what it is, he says, and will continue to change, adapt and evolve; not because of the purists and pedants but through the everyday usage of you, me and every other English-speaking person.