Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm

Right off the bat, let me say that there isn’t a typographical error in the title. I wager most of this blog’s followers know that, but some might not. My college-student stepdaughter winced when she saw my copy of this lying on the table, and said, “That typo on the cover, though.” I set her straight immediately.

Accidence is that portion of grammar that deals with inflection. Inflection is the way a word changes to denote a specific grammatical category. For example: “Sang” is the past tense of “sing.” We know that because it changes form. It changes again for the past participle “sung.” Of course, that’s an irregular form. The same process happens with regular verbs, like talk/talked/talked, but by adding a suffix instead of altering the spelling of the root form. It happens with nouns, too: cat/cats, goose/geese. Now you know, if you didn’t before.

Now that I’ve concluded the brief grammar lesson, on to the discussion.

The text is readily accessible, much in the same way as Pinker’s The Sense of Style. I concur with the front flap text, which calls the book “A witty, authoritative, and often provocative guide to the use and abuse of the English language.” Kamm’s main thrust is to explain why the prescriptivist approach to English usage and grammar is unnecessarily confining. On the whole, I concur. Regular readers here and on my Twitter stream know I self-identify as a pragmatist, combining prescriptivism and descriptivism as required by my work as a fiction copy editor (with the occasional foray into developmental waters).

I respectfully part ways with Mr. Kamm on some of his points. In fact, we had a brief and very congenial/civil discussion about the words “discrete” and “discreet” on Twitter not long ago. He opines that because the differentiation is relatively recent, dating to the 18th century, using them interchangeably doesn’t necessarily present an issue. To paraphrase: if you are all right with readers thinking you’ve made an error for using one in place of the other, go on with it. My stance remains unchanged: spell them as they are currently spelled, so the reader needn’t look for contextual clues to know which one is meant. (Did you know the split was relatively recent? I didn’t. I was always taught they were distinct–one might say discrete–words.) As a copy editor, my job is to make the reader’s experience pleasant and hassle-free (and to give peevers as little as possible to peeve about, without tying the prose and my thoughts into knots). I am not all right with readers thinking my clients and I don’t know which one’s which. (For me, this comes under “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”)

I am in agreement with him on such points as the silliness of excising every double genitive (“a friend of my mother’s”) or double negative (“he won’t let nobody beat him at chess”), albeit not across the board. In dialogue, I let double negatives stand because they’re natural in speech of a certain register. I don’t leave them in narrative unless the narrative voice calls for it.

I’ll begin my conclusion with this brief quote from the first chapter.

“First, you are already a master of grammar. Trust me on this. You became one when, as a young child, you acquired a set of rules–whether of standard English, or another variety of English, or another language. Second, there’s no cause for alarm about the state of the English language, which is in excellent health and can look after itself. Third, if you use English, it’s useful to know the conventions of standard English.”

There you have it: you already know how to use English. You do it daily. When you have to switch to a different register, you might need help.

That’s what I’m here for. And this book can help you, too.

Post script: It occurs to me I need to reconsider the tag line for this blog. I’m far less prescriptive than I was in 2012, and the concept of an “imminent Apostrolypse” has faded. Fear not, though–that header image stays.

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