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Accidence Will Happen

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Are standards of English alright - or should that be all right?

To knowingly split an infinitive or not to?

And what about ending a sentence with preposition, or for that matter beginning one with 'and'?

We learn language by instinct, but good English, the pedants tell us, requires rules. Yet, as Oliver Kamm demonstrates, many of the purists' prohibitions are bogus and can be cheerfully disregarded. ACCIDENCE WILL HAPPEN is an authoritative and deeply reassuring guide to grammar, style and the linguistic conundrums we all face.

304 pages, Paperback

First published February 12, 2015

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Oliver Kamm

24 books10 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews
Profile Image for Bethan.
166 reviews75 followers
February 14, 2016
Why do pedants let great writers and poets off the hook? Why do they let the grammatical and spelling "heresies" of writers like Jane Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton or the Brontes pass without the same outrage and criticism that they reserve for the regular civilian? Why is the average person illogical and killing English if they use something like shall or will incorrectly when those writers are not? I always wondered, and I never understood either how they couldn't see that English is a living thing, a constantly shifting and evolving beast as opposed to something static. Look at how hugely different Anglo Saxon is to Middle English, then at how different that is to Renaissance English, and then again to Victorian English. Nor why could they not see how language is sometimes progressive? One example is how I've often naturally used "they" instead of writing "he" or "she" to avoid being sexist one way or the other even though it's incorrect English to the pedants. Is that not progressive in that it often facilitates more appropriate, private or accurate expression, even leaving the gender politics out of it? It's always seemed to me that English is adaptive and innovative e.g. look at all of the new words being added to the dictionary each year, often to describe things and situations that didn't necessarily exist in the past, such as "texting".

The reason why I picked up this book was actually that a friend complained about textspeak and said that it meant that kids wouldn't be able to write and that it would kill English. A specific gripe that they had was that you should type 'cause in text messages because they insisted that it was the "correct" abbreviation for because. I argued that wasn't particularly utilitarian when it literally only saves one character, plus people widely use cos, bc or other variations which are just as understandable, so why does it have to be 'cause and nothing else? I even looked up what an abbreviation was: a shortening of a word as my instinct had it, so why couldn't cos be an abbreviation? This is a good example of what I mean by English adapting: here using cos or bc is an adaptation to the constraints and speed of informal texting. I wouldn't complain if someone used 'cause but it certainly looks aesthetically ugly and unwieldy to me: few use it in the context of texting. (Use of English is also an aesthetic concern for me.)

But then again, I think that it's actually the writers and speakers who tend to 'make' English and that it doesn't come from some inviolable law. And when I picked up this book, although I was already sold on the basic premise, Kamm said that not only is there not that inviolable law in the first place, English is made by the people who use it, from luminaries such as Dickens to the texters, along with many similar things to my thoughts about it. I'm not going to lie, it was wonderfully reassuring to be told that well, it doesn't especially matter if I still can't understand when to use who and whom or what a split infinitive is (true stories), because English is organic, and to have faith in your ability to use it. (I probably should add here that as a congenitally deaf person I am especially very insecure about my grammar because I was never formally taught grammar, and because so many deaf people have poor English due to not being able to hear it used around them.)

In this book, other than making rather amazing and wonderful claims such as that pedants actually aren't interested in language and that English is actually in extremely good health and there is no danger of decline (of course! It's obvious even if I couldn't put my finger on why my friend's catastrophising seemed 'off'), Kamm is forensic about it, tackling many of the shibboleths of pedants one at a time. He explains clearly and succinctly why they are wrong to be overly pedantic about it by examining the history of it, the logic of it, and by providing examples from canonical literature or broadsheet journalism.

Unlike someone like me, Kamm is someone who genuinely understands grammar and he knows how to make the argument. I appreciated his lack of academic complication (Gloria Steinem: "I recognize the fact that we have this ridiculous system of tenure, that the whole thrust of academia is one that values education, in my opinion, in inverse ratio to its usefulness — and what you write in inverse relationship to its understandability. [...] Academics are forced to write in language no one can understand so that they get tenure. They have to say 'discourse', not 'talk'. Knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful.”) but also Kamm's acknowledgement of the subjectivity of 'style' in writing. Like George Orwell says, break a rule rather than say anything barbarous so, for example, you don't have to always use the active voice or always use short and clear sentences, because fashion and variety are real factors in language. Just compare Romantic poets to modernist poetry for an example of this.

Kamm touches on the subject that pedants are probably exerting some kind of bourgeoisie looking down on people for being less "educated" in not following their shibboleths while letting the famous writers off the hook for similar transgressions, which is a factor I hadn't considered. I would add that I think that people often have a propensity to be liberal or conservative, and that this is probably one of the dividing areas in this if they actually aren't very interested in language and the history of it. Language has to be appropriate to the situation and leeway is necessary depending on the context (context is often what makes something understandable or not). Please note that I definitely appreciate standardised English. I just think that going too extreme into pedantry is not a great thing: a little leeway on the sides of things is expressive and progressive, which is Kamm's argument too. That's all, don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying 'spell and construct sentences however you like with wild abandon'.

Profile Image for Karin.
1,362 reviews9 followers
February 10, 2020
This book debunks many pedantic myths about the English language and rules about a number of words, etc. For me it ranged from interesting, to laugh out loud funny (not that I am a recovering pedant in any way, no, not me, not even close...) to boring (and, no, I don't need a third comma but if you like those, feel free to use them). I can't say that I always agreed with him, and one of the book he argues with is one I enjoyed a great deal, but for the most part he is spot on. Many of the rules we have been taught to follow were arbitrarily decided on at various points in time, and some were done because a few scholars thought two things: 1. that English should follow Latin syntax rules, and 2, that Latin rules are inherently logical, unlike English as it is actually used from long before then

Most of this book is good as a reference, handy to have if you are asking yourself if it's okay to split an infinitive (it is and has a long literary heritage even in top classical authors) or if and when you need to use whom (not telling).
Profile Image for D.K. Powell.
Author 4 books18 followers
July 1, 2016
Oliver Kamm is my new god. At least where the so-called 'rules of grammar' are concerned anyway.

For a long time, my sole useful guide to grammar and style which sat on my desk was Fowler's (I also have the Oxford Manual but find that less helpful). Recently I added my beloved Bill Bryson's 'Mother Tongue' as a fascinating tour through the English language. Now I've added Kamm's 'Accidence Will Happen' even though, interestingly, he cites Bryson five times and criticises him each time. I am nothing if not forgiving.

His book is a brilliant rebuttal of pretty much everything the grammar nazis and pedants stand for while also giving good solid advice about language issues which matter. Kamm's work scores for several reasons:

* He's extremely funny and not in the slightest bit dry making the book a delight to read;
* He's articulate, convincing and provides copious quantities of evidence to back every claim;
* Despite seeming almost anarchical about grammar he's actually a moderate.

This last point is actually very important to me and Kamm has been able to put into words the issue I've struggled with for some time as a writer - namely, a great distrust of the old (and new) 'gold standards' of how to write yet an unwillingness to let go of things important to me.

The book is split into two parts: The first is Kamm's treatise on why the pedants have got it wrong (including a ten-point list of where the 'sticklers', as Kamm calls them, have made errors in their principles); the second is a handy dictionary of common grammar sticking points including use of apostrophes, ending sentences with prepositions, the split infinitive, double negatives and pretty much every issue you can imagine.

His arguments make great sense and, as I say, articulate what I've been feeling for some time. In essence he says this: that grammar changes over time and is controlled by common use and not by the dictate of pedants. Effectively his advice is, if it feels right then it's ok to use. He argues coherently that almost all 'rules' were invented by individuals for no good reason other than opinion or incorrect understanding of etymology. Indeed, he even argues that using etymology at all as an argument for what a word should mean is also incorrect and, again, proves his point repeatedly. His arguments are common sense and rooted in historical fact making them all but indisputable. Certainly he obliterates the arguments and examples of John Humphrys and Simon Heffer (and I feel certain he is off their Christmas card lists now).

Does this mean we should no longer teach the rules of grammar in schools and so on? Not at all, says Kamm. It's horses for courses. We still have different styles of writing and knowing the idioms, customs and rules for these are important - say if needing to write a formal letter or academic piece of writing. But these are cases of using 'Standard English' as opposed to 'Non-standard English'. They're not right or wrong, says Kamm, just different.

Kamm loves the English language and cares about its use. But he doesn't believe the language is in decline or that it is essential to defend it lest it falls. English is what it is, he says, and will continue to change, adapt and evolve; not because of the purists and pedants but through the everyday usage of you, me and every other English-speaking person.
Profile Image for John Fredrickson.
594 reviews15 followers
October 11, 2019
This is the book that we would all like to have in our back pocket when we are confronted by a language pedant. It is an eminently readable book.

Kamm considers the English language as a living vehicle of expression, and contrasts this with the grammatical rules that people have developed to attempt to describe, and prescribe, its usage. He exposes many errors that pedants make, while explaining the likely source of the errors, then goes on to document historical evidence that the usage that is in question has often been in play for centuries. Whether the open question is the use of 'hopefully' as a sentence adverb, or whether the 'I am good' response to 'How are you?' is correct, you will find this a useful book.
328 reviews2 followers
November 20, 2019
An interesting idea. I had expected that this book would explain to me why there are rules in English Grammar and why we should respect them. In fact, this was probably the opposite. Language is dynamic. That which was correct and proper twenty years ago will be different compared with now. Pedants are just that - being pedantic for the sake of it. The second half of the book was a list of grammatical examples, 'rules' that people have used, where they have come from and (usually) why there really is no right or wrong. I read the first half, the second half is really to dip in and out of. Interesting but not as revealing or informative as I had hoped.
Profile Image for Ipek.
72 reviews
April 12, 2016
...Nah. I get what the book is saying and it has a point but the first part was like listening to someone repeat the same opinion over and over again for far too long. The actual "guide" part has some interesting information and I've learned things I didn't know, but I am underwhelmed.
Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 10 books105 followers
September 8, 2018
Are using flat adverbs, splitting infinitives, starting sentences by 'And' or, spelling 'all right' instead of 'alright' signs of a bad English? According to Oliver Kamm, 'leader writer and columnist for The Times': no. No and, his stance is not an opinion coming out of the blue (like, past manuals about grammar picked at random -gnark gnark^^) but, supported by solid evidence -coming not only from various linguistic fields (e.g. the history and evolution of English language itself) but, also reinforced by literary examples (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens etc.).

In fact, and here's why I really loved 'Accidence will Happen', he not only take the time to debunk all those silly and ungrounded rules about supposed bad grammar, spelling and punctuation. He, most importantly to me, stresses how such prescriptivism (or superstitious and ignorant pedantry, as he labels it) is in fact counter-productive when it comes to our use of language. Indeed, beyond the fact that sticklers do not know what they are talking about (again, he debunks all their rules by relying on solid evidence) their attitude towards language is, actually, damaging to literacy. In a nutshell: Standard English has nothing to do with 'good' English ( as opposed to 'bad' ones, then) and, if you really care about the use of English language then, care about registers (of which StandardS are just a part of) and stop worrying about shibboleths. Will sticklers ever be able to understand that? Let's doubt it:

'If the sticklers were interested in language they'd read research on (to name but a few) the grammar of English and other tongues; neuroscience and psychology, to illuminate how the brain processes the written word; computer science, to understand the use of artificial intelligence in simulating language; anthropology, to understand how languages develop across cultures; and philosophy, to understand the link between language and logical thought. Instead their mental universe is populated with instances of a small phonetic confusion between the word EFFECT and AFFECT, or a purportedly (though not actually) incorrect use of INFER. It's not only the pedants' lack of linguistic inquisitiveness that's dispiriting: it's the smallness of their world.'

Clear, straightforward, strongly but well argued and, even, reassuring, 'Accidence will Happen' is bold and refreshing. Whose who really care about language will love this book.
Profile Image for Denise Louise.
210 reviews1 follower
October 14, 2016
I guess I'm a stickler. I do happen to care about the difference between "Its" and "it's", and "to" and "too", and it does bother me to see apostrophes in plural words. According to this book, that makes me a rigid language nazi who doesn't understand that language rules are arbitrary and that language needs to evolve as people use it. I do happen to agree with that premise, though, and I couldn't care less about sentences ending in prepositions or split infinitives; some rules have indeed outlived their usefulness. I don't get upset about "who" versus "whom", and I'm even beginning to accept "their" and "they" as acceptable substitutes for the singular gender-neutral third person pronouns that English is lacking. However, I do not agree with what I surmised as the author's concept that no rules need to apply to language at all. That's where language started, after all, and the rules were developed so we would have some continuity and the ability to understand each other, and to rein in the free-for-all in spelling, grammar and punctuation that used to be English. Rules themselves evolved in the first place, and they do need to keep evolving. To say they are arbitrary is true, but it doesn't make them wrong. And I object to giving up on rules out of sheer ignorance or laziness. For instance, adding apostrophes to plural words has no rhythm or reason. It's not easier or faster or correct; it just demonstrates ignorance of the proper use of an apostrophe. I don't care if people ignore rules in quick, informal communications, but it's becoming clear that those aren't the only times when simple norms are ignored, and people don't seem to be aware of what's "standard" (as the author terms it) anymore. The author cautions against being a stickler about rules because people need to use and adjust language to create new thoughts and ideas. I'd like to think people are making such decisions about the words they chose and the way they present them. But how do we know when that's the reason, or if the reason is that they just don't know any other way?
Profile Image for Jane Griffiths.
210 reviews3 followers
February 20, 2015
largely an extended jeremiad against what he calls "the sticklocracy", by which he means the likes of Lynne Truss (of 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' fame, for those with short memories) Simon Heffer and John Humphrys, all of whom have written books about how to use English proper. He is very non-prescriptive, more so than I think I am capable of being. I cannot accept that "between you and I" is ever OK in Standard English, though I accept that it may be so in American. But he is spot on when he says that English is what it is, is how it is used, and also that most of the sticklocracy, most of the time, gets exercised about perceived errors and misuse on the basis of no evidence, and still less on the reading of dictionaries, whose job is to describe the language as it is used at the moment of publication, not to give us rules to follow. So, let us work on the evidence. An important work for anyone interested in language, and an excellent help for those who try to describe the benefits of good use of English to others.
Profile Image for Joseph L. Reid.
57 reviews
June 13, 2015
Absolute delight of a book. Kamm rejects sticklers who insist on outdated English grammar based on Latin syntax and rightly sides with who matters: those who use the language. He also mentions briefly how grammar is often used simply to separate people from the commoners; rejecting language based on grammar, even when it is in common usage, is classism and nothing less. Fantastic, informative and even witty at the right moments.
Profile Image for Catherine Oughtibridge.
160 reviews17 followers
March 9, 2023
I love this book's attitude and approach to unsubstansiated rules of grammar, and the gentle acceptance it shows towards non-standard, but regionally used, turns of phrase. However, Oliver Kamm's own writing style is somewhat pompous. He demonstrates that his vocabularly is extensive, leading me to scribble definition in the margins. As much as I enjoy learning new words, I can imagine that for many this would make the book more of an ordeal than desired.
Profile Image for Will.
81 reviews9 followers
March 3, 2017
Even though I was worried about buying a rehash of Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, I bought it anyway.

I'm glad I did. This is a light, fun, and very informative little book.

I learned new words, learned more grammar, and all the while became less of a pedant. Highly recommended, but read Pinker first!
1,353 reviews5 followers
June 12, 2017
I won a free copy of this book from Goodreads FirstREads.

Oliver Kamm has a lovely sense of wit and style. The book is in two parts. First, an explanation of sticklers and what linguistics is in reality aka outside the pedant's trolling. Second, an alphabetical tour through many of the popular boogeymen of this crowd. Entertaining and example filled.
6 reviews
March 5, 2020
I was looking forward to this book, but was disappointed. Whilst I agreed with most of what said, I was irritated by the way he said it. At the same time as he was criticising others for dogmatically putting forward preferences as facts, he was busy doing the same thing. At 278 pages it was also about 250 pages too long.
Profile Image for Sue.
148 reviews3 followers
May 30, 2021
While I understand what Oliver Kamm is trying to do here - demonstrate that language usage changes and evolves and there's little point trying to rigidly stick to all grammatical rules regardless - he should have made it more interesting and probably could have done it in fewer words and with less repetition. I'm sure he does know how to edit...

OK I haven't read the whole book yet, I will go back to it at some stage. The author likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much for this reader (who is also a writer) to put up with in one go, however 'right' he is.
Profile Image for Christina Ní Laighín.
17 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2021
This is a reference book which I read as a novel. Some interesting excerpts but overall it's quite repetitive but still there were some interesting parts. A lot of it not really applicable to second language learners of English which is when I started questioning the utility of the book. Despite this, I learned a lot and it was a bit of fun. Realised the lengths to which pedants will go... And what insignificant things people get pedantic about 😂
Profile Image for Kate.
1,197 reviews15 followers
October 14, 2016
This was useful. I found the first section more helpful, as it focuses on why we should ignore sticklers and pedants (particularly good advice for fiction writers). The second section focuses on specific usage, and was rather dense going. Overall, I probably prefer Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, but this was helpful additional information.

I'm really generally not pedantic, and appreciate authors who emphasize sense over style. It's nice to have my intuitions validated (although I suppose I really should give up my family's pet peeve about the use of "very unique." We have always disliked it, although it seems without cause, so I shall have to try to give that up, although I expect I shall never use it myself).
Profile Image for Carl.
157 reviews6 followers
September 8, 2016
If you read this book you may get angry with the author, Oliver Kamm, think he’s a jerk, and start screaming at him. The book is about English usage, a subject that arouses a surprising (and you might say comical) amount of passion from people.

For example: saying “between you and I” instead of “between you and me”. I would say “you and me”, and most grammar books would recommend this. As one critic said, “between you and I” smells of “false genteelism”. But Mr. Kamm defends “you and I”, citing quotes from Shakespeare, Byron, and Mark Twain. And, Barack Obama (an articulate user of English) once said “invited Michelle and I”.

This is pretty much how the book goes. Mr. Kamm discusses quite a number of “rules” for English usage and argues persuasively that almost all of them can be safely ignored. He often gives the history of a rule, telling how it is derived in an asinine way from Latin grammar, or simply invented out of thin air. Mr. Kamm then often gives examples from highly-respected English authors such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, etc, etc where they broke the rule.

The main message I got out of the book was that speakers and writers of what Kamm calls “Standard English” know English better than the “experts”, and should follow their instincts and speak and write clearly and with charm rather than worry about what the experts say.

There seems to be a nagging gap in Mr. Kamm’s thesis, however. He never really says who are the Standard English speakers and writers. He seems to say “You know who you are.”

Besides Mr. Kamm’s polemic against those dreadful language pedants, he discusses a number of tricky points such as hanged and hung, lay and laid, and ridiculous and risible. Professional writers and editors might want to have Mr. Kamm’s book around to consult from time to time.
Profile Image for Izzi.
66 reviews
March 3, 2015
I gave up reading books on grammar and English usage a couple of years ago. The books that were most widely celebrated struck me as simply being platforms for the authors to speak snottily about those who they wish to educate (Eats Shoots and Leaves is an example of such a book). I'm very glad I heard about this book.

As one of those derided on social media for trivial mistakes of grammar, it was great to find a book that was written for those who are not pedants. The first half of the book is dedicated to background and examination of the position of pedants. The second half of the book is dedicated to exploring many 'rules', inconsistencies and controversies in English usage. I was frequently amused by Kamm's revelations on their origins.

This book is now on the shelf in my office for easy reference. I recommend it to any who have previously been repelled from the books written by the sticklers, for the sticklers. I recommend it to the sticklers too. Though I do so with an ounce of caution.
Profile Image for Popup-ch.
748 reviews13 followers
September 30, 2016
Permissive prescriptivist proscribes pedantic pundits' peeves.

Kamm's dayjob is as a columnist at the Times, and he has a strong grasp of the English language (or as he calls it, 'Standard English'). He admits to having been a stickler for 'correct' english, and used to get upset when people used disinterested to mean uninterested or who instead of whom. But he has changed his mind, and realises that in most cases it's not that big a deal. Most of the time it's a matter of register and style rather than of correctness and grammar. (He also objects to the use of 'grammar' when most of the time its self-declared defenders get worked up over syntax or spelling.)

The bulk of the book is an alphabetised list of shibboleths which which Kamm disagrees to a greater or smaller extent.

Some of the usage guides that he refers to made me think of this auto-generated pastiche of Strunk&White: http://objectdreams.tumblr.com/post/1...
13 reviews
November 4, 2016
I am multilingual and have experienced both sides of Oliver Kamm's argument -- his own, which is that language is a living thing and cannot be ruled by grammar and spelling the way purists would like, and the converse, which is that writing or speech that doesn't obey the rules is just plain wrong. (This second viewpoint holds sway in France, and the French are perfectly happy with it, although the use of "popular," "familiar," and even "vulgar" terms is much more prevalent in spoken French than written, so that people who come to France equipped only with the French learnt at school are quickly lost.)

Of course, Kamm is the language columnist for The Times, so he has a bias towards written text. There is, as far as I can see, no reference to speech at all. But it is generally the spoken language that impels change (with the exception of Webster's recommended spelling reform for US English).
Profile Image for Michael McCluskey.
58 reviews6 followers
July 26, 2016
I enjoy a book about good writing/speaking. This book sets itself apart from the usual guide by saying that usage determines rules and not the other way around. In fact, the entire first third of the book seeks to drill this idea into our heads using what the author considers to be the mostly unqualified opinions of pedants. Unfortunately, he goes on to share his opinion concerning usage to give us the exact thing he spent so long essentially refuting. Not bad, but not original either.
Profile Image for Sam.
1 review
September 21, 2015
This little book has been so useful in highlighting the rules of English that actually matter from the ones that are paraded around by pedants.
Profile Image for Jack Fleming.
73 reviews26 followers
April 18, 2022
A useful corrective and counterweight to the arguments of grammar bores the world over who mistakenly think themselves guardians of the language, as if it required such a thing.
Profile Image for Deirdre.
2,023 reviews78 followers
November 18, 2016
Interesting to see a grammarian espousing usage rather than formality.
Profile Image for Angie Boyter.
1,907 reviews50 followers
March 26, 2017
Very disappointed. Lasted through the intro and first 2 chapters. It was already very repetitious, offered no original insights, and didn't have the kinds of fun examples that can often redeem a book of this sort.LOTS of citations of other writers on language, to the point that I wondered what his author had to say on his own!
Profile Image for Fernanda Fadel.
74 reviews1 follower
April 1, 2017
I didn't finish the book. Stopped half way through chapter 2. What I read was somewhat interesting, but it's just no my cup of tea and I was taking forever to read a few pages at a time so I decided to abandon it. I don't like not finishing books, but oh well. It was gift, so I really wanted to finish, but it was going to take forever. From what I read in the other comments it does turn into sort of a manual to help you with maintaining good English language standards. The part I read was very repetitive which made it difficult to progress.
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