I have to admit that reading usage guides can get somewhat boring. Their authors, most of them prescriptivists and literally old-school, frequently use a similar set of usage problems discussing them in a similar manner and expressing similar attitudes. If you read one prescriptive usage guide, your second will most probably not rock your world. On my visit to Oxford last week, I discovered however a rather peculiar usage guide, whose title immediately caught my attention: Accidence will happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage.
Written by Oliver Kamm, leader writer and columnist for The Times, this usage guide was only recently published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and thus dethrones Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style as the most recent usage guide. What intrigued me was Kamm’s point of view on language, which definitely struck a chord with me. He emphasises how native speakers of English need to be reassured of being masters of their language and highlights the importance of knowing when to apply which register. This notion of appropriateness has already been discussed by Henry W. Mittins and his colleagues of the Attitudes to English Usage survey in the late 1960s who would have liked to see it replace the notion of correctness when it came to teaching. More than four decades later, Kamm advocates this view as well.
On 280 pages Kamm debunks the one or the other myth on language usage and highlights the areas where the sticklocracy – pedants, purists and sticklers alike – is wrong in its approach to language. His advice is straightforward and breathes new life into the usage debate. The sticklocracy’s vociferous outrage over allegedly falling standards and the subsequent demise of society has met an interesting and defiant opponent whose view on language usage will most probably galvanise the usage debate once again.