It’s okay to say “Rules is rules”.
Recently, I was recommended to read a new e-book on English grammar:
Accidence will Happen: the non-pedantic guide to English usage, Oliver Kamm, Feb. 2015 (e-book)
Here are my thoughts on this book.
Oliver Kamm is a regular contributor on English usage to The Times newspaper. He writes a column called Pedant which, as it turns out is exactly what he’s not, or so he claims.
I’ve read his book, twice, and first time round he made me mad. Second time round, not so mad.
He claims that many English grammar pedants (he calls them “sticklers”) don’t have a leg to stand on when pronouncing judgement on the construction of some English word, phrase or sentence. He says there is no definitive book on the rules of English grammar; no authoritative body set up to maintain the rules; no historical reasons why certain rules should be upheld. He sanctions split infinitives; sentences that start and end with conjunctions and prepositions; claims “I can’t get no satisfaction” is acceptable simply because the meaning is clear; and that evidence of use by famous authors always supersedes what the rule books say.
Is he right? Yes, to a certain extent. There are no definitive books on the rules of English grammar. There is a whole bunch of opinions and judgements however, many published in reputable style and guide books and many revered as gospel and quoted chapter and verse by self-proclaimed pedants. I have some of these books on my bookshelf: books by Fowler, Partridge, Gowers and Fraser, Heffer, Parrish, Strunk and White, Truss, and so on. Plus there are many websites where one can go for grammatical guidance: Grammar Girl, The Blue Book, Oxford Dictionary, Grumpy Grammarian, and so on. Like Kamm, I have found inconsistencies across this spectrum of books and websites and like Kamm, I break the rules when it suits my style. I boldly split infinitives. And I start sentences with conjunctions plus I don’t believe that a preposition is a word that you can’t end a sentence with. But, I draw the line at saying “Bill and me went to the shops”. I have come to the conclusion that, in the end, how you write is a matter of style coupled with tone – how you want the words to come across to the reader – formal, informal, colloquial, with a twang, with a dialectal resonance. (Kamm calls this matter of style the register of the prose.)
His point about phrases such as “Bill and me …” and “Between you and I …” is that although considered incorrect by grammatical mavens, if the sense of what is meant is clear then why should authors, and speakers, be held back by nominative (subject) and accusative (object) rules that hark back to Latin? Latin is Latin (and dead): English is English (and very much alive), and although one is partly derived from the other, there is no rule that says the derivative language (English) should conform to the grammatical rules of the source language (Latin). And, particularly, if modern usage employs expressions considered by self-appointed grammarians to be incorrect, then so be it. Languages are living things constantly being changed by usage and by many other influences. Two of my granddaughters are forever saying “Me and my friend …” or peppering their speech with the redundant stuffer word “like” (the modern teen version of “um” or “ah”), or using unnecessary adverbial intensifiers such as “really” or “actually”. When challenged as to why they do this, they reply that all their friends at school do it so they do it as well. I cannot argue with that reply and Kamm would uphold their right to both speak and write in this way. Usage changes the language, he says. Evidence of non-pedantic use supports further non-pedantic use. (Kamm’s book is loaded with examples of non-pedantic use taken from the publications of many famous and well-respected authors: Austin, Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Amis, Brontë, Twain, …)
But, we cannot let grammatical anarchy rule supreme. How would anybody learn English as a second language if there were no rules? The language teacher has to put a stake in the ground and select a basic set of rules in order to build a framework for teaching the language. This means selecting and accepting at least one of the rule books and teaching its content. Once mastered, the pupil can exercise his or her right to break the rules, as I now do, but there has to be a reference point from which the author can depart. Kamm does not make this observation. He should have done so.
In the past, I have labelled myself a pedant but I must confess that as my writing expertise has developed then so I have become more bold (bolder?) in my writing style. But, I usually know when I’m breaking the rules and some will remain inviolate. I could never bring myself to write “I didn’t see nobody”, for example, when writing in a formal register (as opposed to an informal colloquial register). Not only is the phrase illogical, to do so makes a mockery of the definition of the word nobody as defined in a reputable dictionary. I rely heavily on dictionaries, not just for spellings and meanings but also for uncommon usage. If the meaning of a word changes as, for example, awesome, wicked, or decimate, then I’m happy to make use of the new meaning but I am careful to ensure that the context makes the new meaning clear. I regard those who compile the entries in dictionaries (lexicographers) as the guardians of meanings and whereas I am sometimes interested to explore the origins of words (their etymology), I am no longer resistant to new developments in their usage. I accept that languages evolve.
Kamm has written an interesting book and I have sympathy with many of his observations but I think he could have stressed the need for a base set of rules even though he is critical of many of the books on grammar and of the army of amateur pedants who voice opinions about usage. His book is also strangely contradictory. He says that evidence of usage transcends any arbitrary rule in a grammar book. That statement, in itself, is a rule and indeed the second half of his book exposes many such usage-supported-by-evidence rules.
If you are an author, blogger, or even just an e-mailer who sometimes struggles to construct a sentence stylishly, unambiguously and correctly (whatever correctly now means), you will benefit from reading Kamm’s opinions. If you are not an author but have an interest in the progression of English as a language, Kamm’s book will add to your understanding of word mutation and language evolution. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool pedant, Kamm’s book will annoy you but may cause you to rethink some of your opinions on usage. If you are none of these, Kamm’s book is best avoided.
After I wrote the article above, I read Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited. The play takes place in a small apartment of a black man, Black, who has just prevented a white man, White, from jumping in front of the Sunset Limited express train. The book details the conversation between the two men, one an atheist (White), the other a believer in God (Black). What struck me about the dialogue, written in a colloquial style, was that it broke many so-called basic rules of English grammar and yet was perfectly understandable. Kamm has a point.