Accidence Will Happen
A Recovering Pedant's Guide
To English Language and Style

Oliver Kamm
    - - - An apostrophe indicates possession. Thus the sentence "My dog's favorite treasure is its bone" should, logically, be written My dog's favorite treasure is it's bone. Until the nineteenth century, that was the way it was done. But now, no. The possessive "it's" got trumped by the omission of the "i" in "It is," so "It's cold outside" (eg, "it is cold outside") won. Blame it on printers from 200 years ago, who made corrections back then (there were no professional proofreaders) and who

      certainly would have had no notion of the nightmares they would give generations of schoolchilden thereafter, castigated by their teachers for stupidity when making the completely reasonable supposition that, because an apostrophe marks possession, it's should denote a neuter possessive.

    - - - To amateur grammarians I can't get no satisfaction means I can get satisfaction "because one negative cancels out the other, thereby yielding a positive." Kamm says no. He views the double as an intensifier, and

      It has a long history in English letters. Chaucer used the multiple negative and nobody, but nobody, misunderstands the construction when it's considered in its context.

    (Chaucer's line appears in the Prologue, and refers to the Friar, a good man, so good "there never was no man nowhere so virtuous" - - - Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous.)

    - - - The best reformer of English spelling, according to Kamm, was Daniel Webster. He took the language, and, for his American dictionary, "merely rationalised a few spellings and created enduring and economical variants. Silent letters in such words as programme, axe and catalogue could be axed, so to speak. The endings of theatre and centre could be reversed, in accord with their pronunciation. The silent u in labour and honour could be dropped. The doubled consonant in the middle of travelled was rationalized away, to create traveled.

      It was a remarkably successful venture in creating a distinctive national orthography and it owed that success to its limited ambition.

    - - - Kamm has little use for the "revered status" of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White. "Their advice on style is platitudinous at best," he writes, "such as here: 'Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating non-commital language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.'

    - - - In the middle of the nineteenth century, 400,000,000 people spoke English. Now, the total is 1,500,000,000, "while the proportion of them living in Britain, North America and Australia had declined."

Kamm quotes a "good grammar quiz" from The Daily Telegraph. One question was,

"Which of these sentences is grammatically correct?

A) "Do you see who I see?" or

B) "Do you see whom I see?"

The Telegraph's answer is B. Our writer responds, "No it isn't." The reason?

    No native speaker with a respect for the conventions of usage would say it either. The question is direct speech. It sounds prissy to use the object case whom in that context. Not many people use it in prose; no one except the insufferably pedantic uses it in speech. The point is not lost on the pedants and they draw exactly the wrong conclusion. They believe that the fault lies not with their rules but with speakers of English who, in vast numbers, fail to abide by them.

This is the essence of the opening chapters of Accidences. It pits the "pedants" (or "sticklers" or "zealots") against the rest of us. Sticklers are the people who ignore the growth and vitality of the English language, rail against the destroyers of the language, those of us who say things like "innit?" (for "Isn't it so?") of "I ain't got no . . . " for "I don't have . . . " or who use "whom" instead of "who," the latter being infra dig. It has much to do with the spoken language, the language of the streets, often at variance with what the purists are demanding, what the linguists refer to as "Nonstandard English." Those who speak thus, says Kamm - - - for instance, the so-called "black English" - - - are uttering "a sophisticated dialect of English that allows them to formulate complex logical arguments."

Hooray! I learned all this at an early age when I was transferred from a public school in the southern United States to one of those prissy prep schools in the northeast. In our Spanish class, our professor asked if any of us could explain the difference between "allá" and "allí." I spoke up, said that the first one meant "over there" while the second meant "over yonder." That brought down a cascade of titters from my northern-born and -bred classmates, as did my regular use of "you" vs. "you'all."

I finally figured out that, technically, "you" can, confusingly, be the third person singular or the third person plural. The second "you" is only the third person plural. However, with the continued ridicule of my classmates, I vowed to get rid of any of these clear, appropriate lingual devices . . . erasing in the process, my lovely Southern accent, where my "my" was heavy, and slow, and elegant. Now, alas, I sound like an acceptable but dull radio announcer.

In the first 100 or so pages of Kamm's book, he is very intent on our understanding all the reasons to ignore the pedants, the "sticklers." They may claim that we are murdering the English language but when someone calls on the telephone and asks for me, I respond "It's me" instead of the technically correct "It is I." I may not be speaking the King's English, but I am speaking in a non-standard, non-stodgy way . . . and it is perfectly all right for me to so do. Agreed.

But, Kamm gets so swept up in his didacticism that his arguments and his message turn circular: that is, he repeats this trope what seems to me to be about a jillion times and we get weary, want to tell him to, in the vernacular, "just fuckin' get on with the book."

Kamm also has a thing about my beloved Harry Watson Fowler, whose Modern English Usage has been a bible for lo these many years. Kamm says Fowler is an "instinctive grammatical moralizer," or a "prescriptivist." Thus, he is unwittingly playing right into the grammarian's hands, dumping us in a section in Modern English Usage on the "Love of the Long Word:

    It is a general rule that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour.
Kamm calls Fowler a "representative of sticklocracy . . . an urbane and thoughtful stickler but a stickler nonetheless, which is why linguists have tended to ignore his work."

Here, our author shows a mighty ignorance. Anyone who has invested time with Modern English Usage knows that the book is a treatise on manners, making it possible for those of us with limited education to study it so we can make pronouncements in public without making a fool of ourselves. Example: here is Fowler's take on "respectfully" and "respectively:"

    Delight in these words is a wide-spread but depraved taste; like soldiers & policemen, they have work to do, but, when the work is not there, the less we see of them the better; or ten sentences in which they occur, nine would be improved by their removal. The evil is considerable enough to justify an examination at some length; examples may be sorted into six groups: A, in which the words give information needed by sensible readers; B, in which they give information that may be needed by fools; C, in which they say again what is said elsewhere; D, in which they say nothing intelligible; E, in which they are used wrongly for some other word; & F, in which they give a positively wrong sense.

Note the use of words like "depraved," "the less we see of them the better," "needed by fools," "nothing intelligible." If this isn't the stuff of Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette, I'll eat it.

After page 105, the final two-thirds of Accidence Will Happen is given over to "Usage Conundrums from A to Z." This consists of around two hundred items: "irregardless," or "flaunt, flout," or "inherent, innate," or the "who, whom." I certainly welcome this last, since I am often befuddled as to which of these I should be using, often completely reconstructing a paragraph to eliminate the word so I won't end up sounding like a ninny.

In his two page summary of which to use, Kamm drags us through "nominative vs. accusative," "relative (as opposed to personal) pronouns," "antecedents," "parenthetical phrases," "hypercorrection" - - - ending up with

    My advice if you're in any doubt whether to use who or whom, however, is to stick with who. Nobody but a stickler will fault you for anything worse than informality, and that is no sin.

We can't fault the writer for letting us off the hook. But, our problem with the last 2/3rds of Accidence Will Happen is the time consumed looking for something. If I want another view of "respectfully" (outside of Fowler), I look in vain to find this in Kamm's book. The same with "neither/nor," "if & when," "betwixt" and "between," "especially," "formal words," "diaeresis" (vital for those of us enamored of the stylistic quirks of The New Yorker), "orthography," "subordinate," and "sobriquets" - - - all to be found in Fowler, none in Kamm.

Thus, would I waste a few minutes plowing through Accidence for a zilch when I know that by diving into Modern English Usaage I'll find just what I need, offered with sufficient wit, eccentric though it be, to take care of all my needs.

--- L. W. Milam
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