Oliver takes on the sticklocracy

20/02/2019
Written by Tony

Nothing beats a reassuring stack of English usage, style and grammar guides. Their well-thumbed pages contain all the help you need to stop badly written English reaching the outside world.

There is a downside, though: the forewords of these worthy manuals make no bones about the fate that awaits if you fail to follow the strictures they preface. Your readers will think you illiterate and the pedantry battalions will pursue you with their red pen rifles and correction fluid cannons.

That said, these books do come in handy for resolving troublesome points of grammar or deciding on points of style. I find them particularly invaluable when a client asks a tricky question and I want to be able to justify my call. But can they ever give more than a snapshot of conventions that are constantly changing anyway? These days everyone’s a ‘content generator’ and the language around, for example, diversity and gender neutrality is developing rapidly as it gets taken more seriously.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times who takes issue with much of the advice dispensed by what he calls the ‘sticklocracy’. Here’s a quote from the introduction to his book Accidence Will Happen: the non-pedantic guide to English:

“There are genuine rules of grammar, there are conventions of usage and there are the superstitions of the sticklers… Their bizarre notions of correct English aren’t principles of logic… They’re just a bunch of shibboleths dreamt up by some eighteenth-century (or later) amateur enthusiasts, whose present-day equivalents are determined not to examine evidence.”

For example, Oliver says it’s OK to split infinitives, that the ‘rule’ saying you shouldn’t is outmoded. It’s alright to start a sentence with ‘and’. And the passive voice can be used when appropriate and to avoid a clumsy rewrite. Oliver backs his arguments up with examples of usage from authors and linguists going back centuries. Of course, Oliver doesn’t think all recommendations in style guides are wrong. What he thinks is wrong is the premise that usage should accord to an out-of-date external standard of ‘correct’ English.

Until recently, Oliver had a weekly column in The Times called The Pedant, in which he challenged many of the opinions of the sticklocracy and pricked their perceived pomposity. He is not alone: linguists like (yes, Oliver says ‘like’ as a conjunction is fine) Stephen Pinker agree with him that rules can only ever be a representation of what is in use and have no other validity. If the weight of usage overwhelms a rule, is it still a rule? Can a whole nation be wrong?

I agree with Oliver’s stance and admire him for it, but many brands have conventions such as passive voice avoidance etched deep on page one of their copy guidelines. As a proofreader, I think it will be a long time before I can stop getting active whenever an infinitive has been passively split.