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Accidence Will Happen:
The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage
Standards of English are far from declining, writes Oliver Kamm in an exclusive extract from his new book.
Many people are passionate about language. I'm one of them. For some years I've written a weekly column for The Times about questions of English usage. The column is prescriptive. It gives the best advice I can devise on what constructions are possible in Standard English, and how to write stylishly and grammatically.
The scene including the phrase 'Accidence will happen' is a riff on grammar that was made up by Anthea Bell, Oliver Kamm's mother.
Opinions on usage have to be based on something if they're to be anything more than prejudices. I'm interested in how English is spoken and written. I'm much more interested in those mechanics than I am in complaining about how native English speakers use their own language.
Perhaps you grimace at the phrase between you and I (instead of between you and me), or bored of (instead of bored with or bored by), or different to (instead of different from), or very unique (instead of just unique), or less than ten items (instead of fewer than ten items). Yet constructions like these are used by native English speakers every day. All of them are common and none are (note that I say none are, even though some people will tell you that you must say none is) ungrammatical.
Looking at the way language is used gives you some perspective on a subject that dominates public debate about English. Pedants are loud, numerous and indignant. They are convinced that standards in English usage are falling, and they blame schools and the media for tolerating this “deterioration”. The outcome, they maintain, is linguistic barbarism, in which slang, sloppiness and textspeak supplant English grammar.
Don't believe it. If there is one language that isn't endangered, it's English. Linguistic change is not decline. Change is always bounded by the need to be understood. People can make mistakes in English but the grammar of the language never breaks down.
From fearing for the future of English it's a short step to worrying about the way we ourselves use language. It's natural and proper to do this. Many articulate people take this apprehension a stage further, however. How many times have you met people who diffidently, even apologetically, explain that they were never taught grammar? It happens to me often.
Opposite me at The Times sits one of Britain's leading political commentators. Prime ministers seek his advice. Television interviewers vie for his opinions. He is a brilliant conversationalist, columnist, debater and public speaker. Yet scarcely a day passes when he doesn't look up from his desk to ask me if a particular construction in English is grammatical, or to check his spelling and punctuation. Is it possible to say the best candidate if there are only two of them, or must it be the better candidate? Should the word data be singular or plural? Almost invariably, I tell him to go with his instinct. Yet I can't shift him from his conviction that he doesn't know the structure of his own language.
My friend is wrong about the state of his linguistic knowledge. He is like many Times readers who write to me on questions of usage. They are intelligent and use language well, yet are convinced that their English is substandard. Their eloquence proves that they're mistaken. Standards of English are not declining; your standards of English are likely to be high.
The title of this book encapsulates my reasoning. It's taken from the English edition of Asterix the Gaul. The indomitable Gaul has just bashed some Roman legionaries. One of the Romans says, dazedly: 'Vae victo, vae victis.' Another observes: 'We decline.' The caption above this scene of destruction reads: 'Accidence will happen.'
You have to believe me that this is funny. The first legionary's Latin phrase means: 'Woe to the one who has been vanquished, woe to those who have been vanquished.' The scene is a riff on grammar. It was made up by Anthea Bell, the English translator of the Asterix books. She is my mother and I have stolen her joke. I'll render it leaden by explaining why it appeals to me. Victo is the dative singular and victis is the dative plural. The legionary is literally declining, in the grammatical sense. The aspect of grammar that deals with declension and conjugation is called accidence.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of English usage is this: if you are a native speaker, you already know its grammar. The same is true of the vast numbers of non-native English speakers whose command of the language is indistinguishable from that of articulate native speakers. You have acquired a mastery of complex grammatical constructions. We have all done this, through an instinct by which we can learn a set of rules. Those rules, once learnt at a very young age, stay with us.
There is not proper English and substandard English. There are Englishes, all of which conform to grammatical rules. Standard English is one form of the language. Its conventions are vital to know, and for children to be schooled in, as a means of gaining fluency in a recognised and universally recognisable form of the language.
By the use of the word and the sentence we have a near-infinite range of expressiveness. Dismayingly, pedants aren't much interested in this potential. The aspect of language that most exercises them is not what we can do with it but what we can prohibit. They mistake linguistic change for impoverishment.
Above all, language is interesting. Pedantry isn't. The sticklers can pursue their obsessions in private if they wish, but their voice in public debate is loud and lamentable and it ought to be accorded the disrespect it deserves. The choices open to good stylists of English prose are far more expansive than most style manuals conceive of.
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