Dr Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean!
Prince George: But I know what English words mean. I speak English. You must be a bit of a thicko!
Blackadder III, ‘Ink and Incapability’, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton
When Stephen King came to write his style guide, he tried to cover the elements of good writing as briefly and clearly and readably as possible. When it came to the section on grammar, King anticipated his reader’s objections:
You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries of you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semester in Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one.
I love reading and writing, but like most King fans, I can’t stand theory of language, never studied it formally and was bemused by the popularity of UK grammar guides – Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the obvious bestseller example. Despite this lack of interest in grammar, I found myself following numerous rules picked up secondhand: observing the less/fewer distinction, writing hanged instead of hung, avoiding literally as intensifier – it’s amazing how many of these little customs we have in writing and speech, half-remembered things from school and home.
Because of my disinterest in language theory, I ignored Oliver Kamm’s book on language when it first came out – which was a mistake, for while grammar primers mostly consist of prescriptions and prohibitions (can’t split infinitives, can’t use double negatives, can’t end a sentence with a preposition) Kamm’s style guide emphasises usage and readability at the expense of what he calls the ‘sticklocracy’ and its endless lists of arbitrary rules. He argues that language is driven by a human drive to communicate, and that it evolves from spoken and written custom. He quotes from a staggering range of classic literature to support his case. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, Kamm says. Great writers always have.
In a fascinating section on the history of language, Kamm explains that the rise of grammatical correctness coincided with the industrial and empire boom, where large numbers of the middle classes, through trade and plunder, ‘entered in a vacuum where absolute royal and aristocratic power had once been.’ It became necessary to develop codes, signals and gradations of social class, and correctly used English was a part of this. ‘Gentility mattered,’ Kamm writes, ‘and manuals of etiquette became phenomenally popular.’ Grammatical precepts, mostly based on Latin syntax, developed from this wrangle of modern manners and were drummed into pupils’ heads for centuries before starting to die out in the 1960s.
Kamm read numerous volumes of style guides before writing his own, and quotes generously from the supposed masters. The often overheated tone is striking. This is broadcaster John Humphrys, in 2007: ‘They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ He is talking about, er, text messaging. Other aspects of linguistic pedantry are simply bizarre. There is a US software engineer and keen grammarian who obsessively removes the phrase ‘comprised of’ from Wikipedia articles, logging an estimated 47,000 edits since 2007. (Kamm comments that ‘this disputed usage has been in existence for more than a century’.) Irrational annoyances, that we all have, are exaggerated to the point of derangement. Kamm also quotes Lynne Truss herself: ‘we [sticklers] got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’ and we really hate that.’ He adds: ‘Yes, I realise it’s a witticism. It’s one that a writer whose sense of place has been supplanted by misplaced pedantry would make.’
Nick Cohen wrote a rave of Kamm’s book, but later added a qualifier:
But an objection made to me by Simon Heffer, one of Kamm’s many targets, nagged away. If you were trying to help poor children get on, you would teach them to observe the ‘rules’, just as you would encourage them to speak BBC English. Conformity would not only protect them from class prejudice, it would help them to be understood. Inarticulacy is a curse. Success comes when you make others understand you, and not just material success either. Kamm and other linguists could not see it. They were well-spoken men and women promulgating anarchist notions that would keep the poor down.
Everyone understands that there is what Kamm calls ‘register’ – you wouldn’t walk into a job interview going ‘yeah mate’, ‘check it,’ and ‘bosh’ and you don’t talk in rolling compound-complex paragraphs when drinking in the pub with good friends (although I suspect Kamm talks in complex structured paragraphs even in that situation). Getting on in the UK is about learning a script, and it is not just to do with language. The script is a peculiar combination of tone, ritual, networks and rules… as arbitrary and strange as language itself.
George Orwell argued that thought derived from language. His totalitarian Party tried to deliberately reduce the vocabulary of English in the hope that deviant mental habits would simply die out for lack of expression. Kamm identifies this as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ and calls it a fallacy: ‘we put names to things because they are important: things do not become important merely because we name them.’ (Of his corrupt magistrate in Burmese Days, Orwell writes that ‘All those thoughts flowed through U Po Kyin’s mind swiftly and for the most part in pictures’ – so he instinctively knew thinking wasn’t totally dependent on words.) So it’s not the foundation of life itself – but text does matter. People need to learn to read and write, they need the time and space to find their voice, they need lots of old paperbacks lying around in houses and schoolrooms, and big quiet libraries with decent stock. But more important than learning to read and write, is learning to read and write for pleasure.