Amis, Kingsley. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage.

NY: St. Martin, 1997.

[I’ve re-read this book and completely re-written an earlier, much shorter review.]

Back in the late ‘50s, when I was (I think) a sophomore in high school, I was wandering the shelves at my local public library branch and found myself browsing through Kingsley Amis’s debut novel, Lucky Jim — in the mistaken impression that it was that famous novel by Joseph Conrad that my English teacher had recommended to the more advanced readers. It was a confusing mistake; it wasn’t set in Malaya and it apparently had nothing to do with shipwrecks. It was also much funnier than I expected from a 19th-century Polish/English author. But I read it anyway, and became a lifelong fan of the peculiarly Amis view of the world.

The author was a noted stylist, which requires that one also become a close student of the language, and Amis was that, too. He was a product of the education common to young men of a certain class earlier in the 20th century, though he was a scholarship boy himself, first at the City of London School and later at St. John’s, Oxford. Still, he learned Latin and Greek, simply because one did. And he became a fan of H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, to which he refers and often quotes from on almost every other page of this volume. (I have a well-thumbed, frequently consulted copy of Fowler myself.) But Amis doesn’t attempt to replicate or update Fowler. What he has to say about the way English ought to be written (he’s generally less concerned with the many ways it might be spoken, which he knows is a very different thing) is more of a collection of his own often curmudgeonly thoughts, assorted hobby-horses, and peevish prejudices as they have accumulated over his career — right to the end of it, in fact, since this book was published posthumously. Still, he covers a lot of territory.

For example, he cites “between you and I” as a leading example of the “vice of hyper-urbanism.” “The origin here is probably the quite false and truly vulgar notion that to say (or write) ‘It’s me’ is ungrammatical and therefore to be avoided. Ungrammatical it is, but completely idiomatic, and even in fun ‘It is I’ is too awful to be tolerated.” Hear him! In fact, Amis doesn’t hesitate to criticize Fowler for the latter’s occasional intolerance of idiom. Technically ungrammatical lapses in idiom, he says, “are by definition invulnerable to logic.” The English teachers’ crusade against the split infinitive is another one he castigates, “the best known of the imaginary rules” laid down by “petty linguistic tyrants.”

Sometimes the author is obviously fighting a losing battle, as with the general acceptance of “forensic” to describe the specialized technical aspects of criminal investigation. (Use “technical,” he says.) I’ve also never heard “attaché” (as in briefcase, not diplomat) pronounced “a-TACH-y,” but he apparently doesn’t approve of giving French loan-words a French-like pronunciation. That would be un-English. Nor does he like to see “bemuse” given the current common meaning of a passing condition of mild perplexity. On the other hand, he admits he has always rhymed “lather” with “gather,” not (as he had always been told) with “father.” (Really? Hard to imagine.) Some words seem to exist only in the UK, too, never having made it to this side of the Atlantic. “Haver,” for instance, was once “a respectable Scottish verb meaning ‘to talk nonsense’, and there can never be too many words for that.”

Though Amis is quick to say he greatly admires America and Americans and respects at least large swathes of American literature, he also shows some distinctly anti-American biases, some of which are really not at all tenable, not even in Britain, not in the mid-1990s. An example is “ate,” the past tense of “to eat,” which he says ought only to be pronounced “et.” For “to pronounce the word as it is spelt [sic] is . . . an example of pedantry, conscious or unconscious.” That may be the expected “U” pronunciation of the word, but I have personally never heard it so pronounced among the numerous educated Brits of my acquaintance. On the other hand, he inveighs on the same page against “-athon,” borrowed from “Marathon” to create monstrosities like “telethon” and “sale-a-thon.” Have to agree with him there.

Because I’ve done freelance work as a developmental editor and copyeditor for nearly thirty years, and even though I’m certainly not in any way a linguist (as Amis also several times insists he is not), my home library includes a couple of shelves of usage guides, style manuals, and specialized dictionaries. Since it’s not really a reference book, this volume won’t be joining them. But it will have a spot on the adjacent shelf among other works of literary criticism and humor.

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Published in: on 16 May 2014 at 2:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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