Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Kamm-ouflaged Pedant - a review of Oliver Kamm's book on English usage.

There are three different kinds of people who write books on grammar and usage. The first consists of linguists and grammarians who have proper academic credentials in the study of language. The second group is extremely rare - writers who have absolutely no knowledge of grammar and I really mean zero knowledge. Most ignorant people aren't that shameless. Singapore's Speak Good English Movement is the only organisation I know that writes grammar books that are totally wrong and the people who shamelessly write them are clueless about English grammar as my recent review of their latest grammar book demonstrates. The third group that writes books on grammar and usage is made up of mainly journalists. Unlike the second group that knows nothing about grammar and cannot even construct grammatical sentences themselves or make an official speech without errors, these journalists usually have some working knowledge of grammar and they can write beautiful prose but this knowledge is too skimpy for them to write books on grammar and usage.

If I want to read the latest gossip about Trump and some woman he allegedly groped, I look to a journalist for an entertaining article. It's probably fake news, but who cares? But I would be out of my mind if I turned to a journalist for help on grammar and usage. Burchfield says of journalists, 'As any ... grammarian knows, newspapers...contain a higher proportion of deviations from standard language...and solecisms.' Newspapers aren't a source of good grammar and the people who write them are the last people on the planet that you should look to for guidance on standard English.

Some years ago, I read not one but 4 or 5 books on usage written by journalists, after which I came to the inescapable conclusion that all journalists were idiots. I should also add that I read at that same time a book on grammar written by a renowned literature professor that compelled me to write a scathing review in this blog: How can Prof John Sutherland be so wrong?

I took a holy vow after that short period of temporary insanity that I would never again read a book on grammar and usage that was not written by a linguist. These half-baked charlatans just don't make the cut.

Just a few days ago, I chanced upon a book on English usage written by yet another journalist. It's a book published about two years ago and I saw a few glowing online reviews of the book by, yes you've guessed it, other journalists. In my desire not to tar all journalists with the same brush, I ignored my vow and read the book. It's called Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage by Oliver Kamm.



Let me assure you that I started reading this book with all the positive vibes. When I read in the Introduction that Kamm's mother was the English translator of Asterix, I immediately took a liking to him. The son of the translator of Asterix can't go very far wrong on English usage, I reasoned in my head, so strong was my layman's faith in the power of genetics.

Alas, we lay folks don't really understand how the chromosomes and DNA work. Kamm seems quite unlike what I thought the son of the translator of Asterix should be. He is extremely vitriolic in his castigation of his fellow journalists who have written usage books. But I have read some of these usage books written by journalists and I've read too the rave reviews of these books by some other journalists and all I can say is I am appalled that they could be so audacious as to write on a subject they obviously knew so little about. I myself don't care much for political correctness and I have made a few strong comments in my blog and I don't think there are many people who would describe me as urbane however broadly you may define the term. What's really important to me is not how rude Kamm is. The only important question is whether Kamm is correct. I am ok with a writer who blasts his fellow journalists in the strongest terms but he must be justified in his blasting. It will not do if he himself is wrong. It will be outrageous if Kamm is just as ignorant as his fellow journalists who have the temerity to write usage books when they (Kamm included) know too little about English grammar. An ignoramus who slams other ignoramuses is far more deserving of a rebuke than an ignoramus who is silent and agreeable.

As I have stated in the title of this blog post, Oliver Kamm is a camouflaged pedant who is just as clueless about grammar as the other pedantic but ignorant journalists he so mercilessly excoriate in his book. I have only read half his book and there are already about a thousand errors that are jostling with one another for some space in this blog post. But I have to be selective.

Kamm says pedants, or sticklers as he prefers to call them, 'are confused about what grammar is'. He writes, 'Linguists have a precise definition of grammar.' He goes on to explain that grammar means only syntax, morphology and phonology. Kamm insists that 'pedants are barely interested in any of this.' Pedants, Kamm concludes, are only interested in semantics and orthography.

Earlier this month, there was a great deal of publicity surrounding a self-styled 'grammar vigilante' who has been correcting punctuation errors on signs all over Bristol. On 8 April 2017, Oliver Kamm wrote in The Times that 'the grammar vigilante has misunderstood his own moniker.' Grammar, says Kamm, encompasses syntax, morphology and phonology. Orthography (which is what the grammar vigilante goes round correcting) 'has nothing to do with grammar'. It was really this column in The Times that made me interested in what more Kamm had to say in his usage book. His book makes it all clearer. He says semantics and orthography have nothing to do with grammar. He asserts that that is how linguists define grammar. But he does not quote any linguist because this is his own flawed definition.

This is the kind of nonsense that the reader will see even at the start of the book. Linguists are all agreed that grammar is broader than just syntax, morphology and phonology. Of course like most words in the English language, usage sometimes allows you to have a narrower definition in some contexts. Let me take an example given by Sir Randolph Quirk, a renowned linguist. When you say 'John uses good grammar but his spelling is awful', the context clearly excludes orthography from grammar. However, as Quirk explains, it's possible for 'grammar' 'to include both spelling and lexicology'. 'Spelling and lexicology' is another way of saying orthography and semantics.

You may think perhaps there was a time when grammarians were stricter in their definition of 'grammar' and Kamm's definition that excludes orthography and semantics is what you would find among old-school grammarians. But that's not true. Even Henry Fowler back in 1926 gave a long definition of 'grammar' that has 9 separate components including (specifically) orthography and semantics.

It is Kamm the ignorant pedant and not the other pedants who is confused about what grammar is.

When Kamm attempts to show that Fowler was wrong in his entry on 'dour' this is what he wrote:


There are just too many errors in this short excerpt. The quotation comes from Sir Ernest Gowers and not Henry Fowler. Isn't remembering who said what or which village gossip told which tale something a newspaper man is supposed to be good at? I find it hilarious that Kamm cites what he hears in 'newspaper rooms' as authority of what correct pronunciation should be. Does he really believe that the discerning reader will give much credence to what is said in newspaper rooms any more than what is shouted about on the trading floor by stockbrokers? Let's see what real linguists say today. As recently as June 2015, Jeremy Butterfield repeated what Burchfield said 20 years ago that Fowler's recommendation in 1926 is today 'the only standard pronunciation in Britain'. Linguists for the past 90 years say the same thing about today's pronunciation of dour in the UK. It hasn't changed and Henry Fowler's recommendation still holds true today. Of course the pronunciation (like all other pronunciations) may one day change but as matters stand today, Kamm's criticism of Fowler is wrong and uninformed. I'm not saying Kamm and 'most people from [his] experience' can't use a variant pronunciation that is in fact the standard pronunciation in the US. But he should not use Fowler's recommended pronunciation which was standard in the UK in 1926 and which is still standard today as an example of how flawed Fowler's book is. While I am a fan of Fowler's Modern English Usage and I've read all four editions, I'm not oblivious to Henry Fowler's occasional quirks. However, his recommended pronunciation of dour isn't one of them.

That Kamm has an inordinately inflated opinion of his job as a columnist is quite evident from a quick glance through the book. He seems to think that the newspaper room he works in is the final arbiter of what standard English should be. His book is littered with examples in which columnists are featured. I can't help but feel that only a rank narcissist would write like that. Let me pick a few examples by just flipping the pages at random:

On page 118, we read:
The greedy columnist ate his first blueberry muffin of the morning. 
And many pages later, on page 173, we have:
Neither the columnist nor the Editor knew the answer.
It's fine if a person is proud of the job he does but it gets a bit tiresome for the reader when the author is so full of himself and even goes so far as to cite what he hears in the newspaper room as authority of what standard pronunciation should be.

I really mean it when I say that there is a huge torrential downpour of errors coming out of the pages of Kamm's book but I have to remind myself that this is only a blog post and not an encyclopaedia on Kamm's ignorance. I will talk about just one more error that shows what a pedantic and ill-informed prig he is.

Here, he criticises two sentences in his own newspaper. Probably, that would earn him brownie points with his superiors. Ostensibly, he must be better than his colleagues if he can point out their mistakes. But he is doing precisely what he has been accusing sticklers or pedants of doing - ignoring usage.

The first alleged error comes from a legal article in The Times:
Part of the problem is expense - the technology, premises and high standard of the bench do not come cheaply.
While it is true that the sentence calls for the adjective 'cheap' and not the adverb 'cheaply', linguists, unlike ignorant pedants, look at the evidence of usage and this is what Jeremy Butterfield says after having examined the evidence from the Oxford English Corpus (OEC):
However, the OEC data suggests that people more often interpret it as an adverb, and replace it with cheaply
The majority of English users prefer to use the adverb 'cheaply'. This is just what Kamm has been complaining about the sticklers - they don't examine the evidence of usage. Here, Kamm totally ignores the evidence of usage and pontificates from his ignorant pedant's chair that his colleague who writes legal articles in the same newspaper is wrong when he's not.

The second sentence Kamm criticises from The Times displays this same ignorance on his part:
The alleged actions of a single rogue employee could end up costing one of the country's supermarkets and its shareholders dearly in the months to come.
This is not an error at all. The language expert and lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield says that 'with buy, cost, pay, sell, etc., when the sense is 'at a high price, or great cost,' dearly ... and dear ... are both available...'. It's wrong and stupidly pedantic to lay down rules when both words are acceptable although of course, as Butterfield says, one or the other may feel 'contextually more idiomatic.' While I'm of the view that the sentence Kamm objects to in fact feels more idiomatic when 'dearly' is used (because of the many intervening words between 'costing' and the adverb whereas, if I may borrow Butterfield's example, 'the recession has cost Britain dear' would sound better), I would never object to the use of either dear or dearly in such a context where both words are acceptable. Sadly, ignorant pedants like Kamm don't seem to understand this. Kamm blasts sticklers for confusing their stylistic preferences with correct English but this is exactly what he's doing.

I would not have written this article and I would have simply ignored Kamm's book as I have ignored the other books on grammar and usage by other journalists if not for the unbearable smugness that permeates all of Kamm's outbursts against his fellow journalists.

It sure looks like the vow I took some years ago never to read a grammar or usage book that's not written by a linguist is a vow I must never break.

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