Monthly Archives: February 2015

Accidence Will Happen – by Oliver Kamm

I find it hard to review books that I like, because I tend to feel that I need to be critical to be useful. (It’s a sickness.) And in the case of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage, I’m also biased: he quotes my blog and thanks me in the acknowledgements for reviewing an early draft.

For what it’s worth, I really do like the book. Kamm’s view, in brief, is that standards are set by general usage and not by rule-mongers who think they know better, and obeying those sticklers is liable to bog you and your writing down with needless superstitions. He also says that Standard English is important but not intrinsically better or more correct than other dialects. Half the book addresses typical stickler arguments and half gives guidance on specific points.

Rather than review the book, I’m going to respond to a critical review of it.

Roger Lewis in the Times (paywall) says:

Any educated person used to know the difference between appraise and apprise, credence and credibility, enormity and magnitude. Those of us who were Mixed Infants in the Sixties would never say bored of, as the correct form is bored with, nor confuse different to with different from. We were aware by the age of seven that you’d be hanged not hung for capital crimes.

Kamm thinks a lot of this is bunkum.

Such rules are “just preferences”, and language should be left to its own devices — which is like saying that the destruction of the countryside ought to be allowed to proceed unchecked, as to halt such developments is to try to prevent an evolutionary inevitability.

Lewis’s timing is badly off. The roads and buildings he opposes were put there long ago; his position, in effect, is that map-makers should refuse to include them.

On matters of historical fact it’s wise to check the evidence. All of Lewis’s supposed errors are old, and their status as errors is mostly debatable.

To Lewis and his fellow pedants, “appraise” means evaluate and “apprise” means inform, and woe betide any modern illiterate who mixes them up; any educated person used to know the difference. Except that the earliest uses of “apprise” in the Oxford English Dictionary – from 1400 – meant to evaluate. It only started to be used for informing in 1694. Only a dozen years later, “appraise” (which had been about evaluating since 1424) started being used for informing. So the two words have a double history. That said, nowadays the disparaged usages are not that common, and Kamm agrees that we should avoid them. But this is on grounds of usage, not some mythical ancient decree.

“Credence”, the pedants say, means acceptance as true; it cannot mean “credibility”. The OED, though, lists a definition of “credence” as “the quality of being believed or believable; the likelihood of being true; plausibility, credibility”. This dates back to 1450. So this is one of many words with more than one meaning, and Kamm says confusion is in practice unlikely. The same is true of Lewis’s next bogeyman…

“Enormity”, according to the pedants, means great wickedness and not great size. The approved usage dates back to 1477 in the OED, but also around that time the word was used to mean an abnormality or a divergence from the normal standard, with no moral judgement necessarily involved. This makes sense when you think about the “norm” part of the word. So, while the approved usage means against the norm of morality, from 1792 the word was also being used to mean exceeding the norm in size. (Also, as Kamm notes, the earliest uses of “enormous” and “enormousness” had nothing to do with size but meant transgressing moral norms.)

“Bored of” is allegedly wrong while “bored with” and “bored by” are right. It’s true that usage has historically favoured the latter two, but this is changing. “Bored of” is still less common in print, but it’s growing. In speech and online, it’s clearly standard. The Glowbe corpus of web usage find “bored of” to be more common on UK-based sites than “bored by” or “bored with”. And there’s no logic to the complaint anyway, says Kamm: we all accept “tired of” and “wearied of”.

“Different to” and “different from” I’ve dealt with before. Both are well-established and both are fine, as Kamm agrees.

I would actually go along with a couple of Lewis’s points – but not because of any immutable rules from some vague point in the past. I try to favour or avoid certain usages based on today’s usage and attitudes (which may depend on the audience). When he says “What activates my own pedantry isn’t futile nostalgia for an ideal classical epoch but a real fear of reverting to linguistic barbarism,” he is kidding himself as well as being hyperbolic. Abolishing sticklers’ pseudo-rules wouldn’t just leave English in excellent shape; it would leave English pretty much as it already is.

One other complaint Lewis makes is:

Kamm can be the revolutionary favouring diversity while flaunting (not flouting) a professional knowledge of dangling modifiers – he can do all this because he operates from a superior base of intellectual assurance. … He can say “errors” represent “flux” and that standards are not falling, because he knows in the first place these various conventions of grammar when he chooses to break them.

Similar points come up in John Rentoul’s and Simon Heffer’s recent discussions with Kamm.

I’m sceptical. Yes, it may be a bit tricky for some people to get their heads round the various distinctions that masquerade as matters of right and wrong. But I think most people can grasp that, for instance, the wrongness of “I ain’t done nothing” depends on context while the wrongness of “I anything not have doen” doesn’t.

It’s a common riposte to people like Kamm that they write in flawless Standard English while arguing that other forms of English are fine too. But Kamm makes it crystal clear that Standard English is vital to know; he just wants it taught without the disparagement of other dialects. He also wants it taught without time being wasted on the loose collection of pseudo-rules and superstitions that are followed by a minority of Standard English speakers.

On this point he practises what he preaches.

In the first few pages of the introduction to his book, he breaks several of these pseudo-rules: he ends sentences with prepositions, he uses “like” (not “such as”) to introduce an example, he treats “none” as plural, he uses “if” where sticklers would demand “whether” and he begins sentences with conjunctions.

The result is good prose. Those rules define not Standard English but a minority taste that imagines itself to be law.

An interesting comparison is Heffer’s book Simply English, which is uncompromising (albeit ill-informed and quirky) in insisting on such rules. Take this line from his introduction:

I am bemused that we should be asked to tolerate someone saying ‘he has flaunted all the rules’ when but for a moment of ignorance they could just as easily say ‘he has flouted all the rules’.

“Someone saying” is a fused participle, a construction that later in the book Heffer condemns as clumsy and confusing. Following his own rule, he should have written “someone’s saying”.

Also in that sentence is a singular “they”, which he elsewhere calls “unacceptable”. Following his own rule, he should have written “he” (because “the male should be taken to include the female”).

Heffer flouts the very rules he flaunts; they take pride of place in his opinions but have a weaker hold over his actual usage. This is not a sign of his illiteracy, though: the sentence is good Standard English. It’s a sign that these rules have been artificially grafted on to the language and don’t really belong there.

If even the most determined professional stickler can’t keep usages like these out of his carefully written book on correct usage, it’s a sign that those usages are correct and the rules against them are bogus.

The exorcism of bogus rules is the purpose of Kamm’s book, and I commend it.

A ridiculously brief, outrageously selective and painfully simplified history of Standard English

Standard English is one of many dialects of English. It’s the dialect that public affairs, the media and administration overwhelmingly use, and is the one most associated with education, prestige and power. Here I’m looking at Standard British English, but many of the points apply in other English-speaking countries.

Standard English dominates public life but not private conversation: only a minority of English speakers (largely defined by class) use it with friends and family, although far more switch into it when the occasion demands. It’s important to be able to do this, because Standard English opens so many doors in life.

Because of its status, many people think of it as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English, and scorn those who speak other varieties. But as well as being rude, this is mistaken. If you say ‘I seen them books but I didn’t buy none’ in the company of other people who talk that kind of dialect, that’s fine. If you say it in a job interview at the BBC, you may have a problem. Your error is one of judgement, though, not grammar.

Non-standard dialects are perfectly ‘correct’ – on their own terms. In fact, they’re mostly the same as Standard, but of course what we notice are the differences. And where they differ, they do so according to their own rules – not a lax application of Standard rules, as snobs like to imagine.

For example:

  • Standard uses the possessive ‘my’ and ‘your’ to form the reflexive pronouns ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’, but not the possessive ‘his’ and their’ to form ‘hisself’ and ‘theirselves’. Other dialects have a regular system that does use the possessives consistently this way.
  • Standard doesn’t allow multiple negation – ‘I didn’t want none’ – but most other dialects do (along with some other languages, but je ne sais pas how many).
  • Some dialects make much more use of flat adverbs (without the ‘-ly’) than Standard, such as ‘they talked real slow’.
  • Standard has varied verb endings – ‘you like’ but ‘she likes’ etc. – while other dialects may use the same form, whether ‘likes’ or ‘like’, across the board.
  • Some dialects use singular noun forms for plurals after a number – ‘they walked five mile’. Standard doesn’t, although it does something similar in constructions like ‘a five-mile walk’.
  • Standard has lost the old distinction between singular ‘thou’ and plural ‘you’, while some dialects maintain it. Others have developed new distinctions, using ‘you’ for singular but ‘youse’ or similar for plural.
  • Irregular verbs may differ in the past and perfect tenses. Standard says ‘I spoke’ but ‘I have spoken’ while Tyneside English says ‘I spoke’ and ‘I have spoke’. On the other hand, Standard says ‘I got’ and ‘I have got’ while Tyneside says ‘I got’ but ‘I have getten’ (a relative of the old ‘gotten’, which still thrives in the US).

So in some cases Standard English draws more distinctions than other dialects, in other cases fewer. Some of its conventions are more consistent and some less consistent.

It also isn’t the same thing as formal language. Standard English can range from ‘The consequences of further inaction would be somewhat vexing’ to ‘You’d better get your skates on or I’ll be pretty pissed off’. Standard can be casual, idiomatic and obscene. That said, the situations in which it’s used are more likely to be formal.

The linguists’ label ‘Standard’ reflects status, not quality – and that status is the result of historical accident. So let’s race through a millennium or so… Continue reading