Accidence Happen: Review of a Non-Pedantic Guide to Language Change

Oct 20, 2016

Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English explores language change, the ways in which language is used today, and how experts discuss conventions and usage. According to Kamm, experts can be divided into two camps:

  • Linguists (who are interested in the history of the language)
  • Pedants or sticklers (who are only interested in correcting other peoples’ grammar and prescribing rules)

In this book, Kamm aligns himself with the former camp, arguing against judgemental commentary on what is proper English.

Oliver Kamm, a Reformed Stickler

Journalist Oliver Kamm is a lead writer and columnist for The Times. Like his predecessor, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), Kamm also acted as the paper’s unofficial grammar expert. During his tenure, Kamm wrote an occasional column called ‘The Pedant’ and at one point declared that he was a proud grammar purist. Yet, in Accidence Will Happen, he declares that he is ‘a reformed stickler’. Kamm now realises that language change is inevitable, and that rules cannot always effectively govern language as a means of communication.

Portrait of Oliver Kamm, the 'reformed stickler' who now embraces language change

The Reformed Stickler

Language Change and Non-Standard English

Kamm’s argument is based on three core premises:

  • All native English speakers have already mastered the language, even if they don’t think they have
  • Language change indicates that the English language is alive and well
  • It is helpful for those who use Standard English to know its conventions as it is needed in certain contexts

He points out that slang and text speak, or non-Standard English, are often confused with incorrect usage. Kamm refutes alarmist claims that changes to the English language, including new forms of slang, signify its deterioration (and the deterioration of society). In a lively discussion, he argues against claims of eminent journalists John Humphreys and Simon Heffer that the English language is ‘going to the dogs’.

Humphreys and Heffer argue that changes to the language are a danger to critical thinking and to civilisation itself. In contrast, Kamm argues that English is a living language and needs to change. Furthermore, he believes that slang and text speak are perfectly acceptable forms of communication as they ‘make us at home in the world’. Indeed, slang actually follows grammatical rules, otherwise it would be incomprehensible to anyone.

In the first half of his study, Kamm presents his argument that pedantry is less about clear expression and more about class division. He argues that it is concerned with expressing who is ‘in’ through the use of, what he calls, ‘linguistic shibboleths’ or outmoded beliefs about language.

Usage Conundrums

In the second half of his book, Kamm lists his own personal gripes with the English language in a section that, paradoxically, resembles a relaxed style guide. However, he prefaces the section by saying that his approach differs from the pedantic approach as he does not prescribe strict rules. Kamm argues that his are not the only forms of legitimate usage in Standard English and that the section represents his personal stylistic preferences. Siding with the linguistic camp, he looks at the history of the language change, including the use of commas, sentence structure, and split infinitives rather than seeking out errors and condemning those who disagree.

Kamm refutes some of the most widely held beliefs and rules that are taught in schools. For example, he argues for the use of ‘ain’t’, ‘alright’, and ‘till’ in Standard English, citing numerous valid uses of each word and arguing that there are no logical grammatical reasons to avoid using them.

In addition, Kamm differentiates between often confused pairs of words and phrases, including ‘different to/different from’, ‘may/might’, and ‘who/whom’. He discusses more general issues including our need for conventions, sentence structure, the split infinitive, and style in general. Rejecting definitive judgements of right and wrong, Kamm contends that language and dialect are simply different depending on where you are in the world or who you are talking to. He likens the notion of regional or cultural linguistic conventions to the variation in types of electrical sockets in different geographical locations.

Cover art for Oliver Kamm's book on responding to language change

Accidence Will Happen

The Verdict

Kamm’s often controversial opinions about language and his argument for the importance of slang and modern changes are refreshing amidst the proliferation of rules and the various style guides available to us today. Although style guides are a valuable resource for technical communication, they often cannot cover or keep up with changes to usage in relation to modern communication and technology.

Amusingly, when discussing the ways in which pedants are wrong, Kamm himself veers slightly towards the pedantic, making the ‘non-pedantic’ in his title ironic. Yet, his overall argument is never fully undermined due to the book’s approachable, conversational style that invites the reader to agree with him. The section is presented as an opinion piece, intended to spark debate and critical thought, rather than as a prescriptive style guide.

I personally agree with many of Kamm’s points as several style guides that I have used in my role as a technical writer prescribe outmoded forms of expression and don’t take modern communication and technology into consideration. This is certainly changing as technical communication, particularly online communication, is adopting a more casual, conversational tone. Kamm’s book usefully demonstrates that English is in constant flux and that grammar rules cannot cover every eventuality. Ultimately, I found his overall argument – that what matters is clear communication, rather than a pedantic adherence to grammar rules – highly convincing.

Over to You

Do you think Kamm’s arguments are relevant to technical communicators today? Has language change impacted on your work? Do you think pedantry is necessary for technical communication? If you have some amusing or insightful anecdotes relating to language change, please leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you.

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