The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. London: Harper Collins, 1997.
shall [use for simple futurity or prophesy] will [use for intention, and never say anything that strikes you as unnatural] endeavour [simple is best] try to be a “careful writer” [facetious use of quotation marks] careful writer for this post.
It was interesting to read this book as a Canadian. I quite like being lectured to by authors of style guides. Lynne Truss, of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame, is brilliant at that particularly British form of finger wagging, but, I have to say that she wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a comforting reminder always to keep things simple, his advice delivered in an authoritative but kind mentor’s voice. An American one at that. Zinsser, I felt, wanted me to learn how to write the best possible version of an essay, he wanted me to succeed, and he was not going to ridicule or belittle me in the process.
Not so Kingsley Amis. He knows plenty of things that I
do did not, and he has precious little patience for fools. He’s not mentoring; he’s hectoring and relishing others’ mistakes. Thankfully, as a Canadian, I am neither his intended reader (British) nor his target for his lamentations about falling standards (British) nor the encroaching contaminator of his language (American). (I do, however, now feel an overwhelming sense of paranoia that he’s watching from the beyond and waiting to catch me making a mistake in my assessment of his book!)
Properly speaking this book is a guide to modern usage, not a dictionary, but its entries are arranged alphabetically, and it does, as dictionaries do, define words, provide pronunciations, trace etymologies. It also takes potshots, which is rather fun to observe as long as one is not guilty of the mistakes he describes.
Never begin a fresh sentence with too followed by a comma, to mean something like further or also. Not even Americans should be allowed to get away with that. (229)
And really, what I found most endearing about this book is the heartfelt homage this King (Kingsley Amis’s nickname) pays to The King’s English, written by H.W. and F.G. Fowler, and H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. His reverence is lovely to behold, perhaps all the more striking in light of what a brute he can be.
Kingsley Amis would like us all to be careful writers, but to take the degree of care that he takes requires a degree in philology. The man makes word choices based on etymology: is an Old English or a Latinate word most appropriate here? Then again, I did appreciate his many examples of misused words.
Decimation was a form of collective punishment in the Roman army, whereby every tenth man in a mutinous or demoralised party of soldiers was executed, so to decimate in English was used to mean ‘destroy a small but noticeable part of.’ Most people would say they know some of that, and yet that useful word has been irreversibly corrupted into just one more synonym for ‘damage beyond repair, virtually destroy’, but with the advantage of looking rather classy and learned. Not to be used even in the original sense on grounds of ambiguity. (41)
This lamentation for the loss of a word because of widespread misuse is a common refrain in the book:
This is a very precise and was once a very useful word meaning ‘a position that leaves only a choice between two equally unwelcome possibilities’. Somebody in such a position was often said to be ‘on the horns of a dilemma’; the word was narrow and clear. Unfortunately it has ceased to be either and for many years has been resorted to by journalists and others on the look-out for a posh-appearing synonym for ‘difficulty, quandary’. This perversion has made dilemma unusable by careful writers. (50)
I really do admire this kind of attention to detail, this kind of care about the choice of words.
His attacks on journalists, in the tabloids and the quality press, are also frequent, as it is they who are responsible for committing to print and then popularizing these kinds of barbarisms. Newspaper headlines are a particular sore point.
As for my sore points, the man is an inveterate chauvinist.
As far as I know, no English dictionary that gives etymological origins has yet been edited by a female, woman, lady, girl or one of those over there, though such persons can be trusted with revision and kindred tasks. (204)
It is not extraordinary that the extraterrestrial origin of women was a recurrent theme of science fiction, though I have never seen their imperfect grasp of their native language put forward as one more piece of evidence. (245)
What can you do but cluck disapprovingly at his ignorance, as he has done to others? Poor man. Thankfully enough people disagree with him on these points to make him an anachronism.
The book was published in the late 1990s, though it feels much older (see chauvinism, above), and an edition with an introduction by his son Martin appeared this year. Here is Martin Amis on his father’s book.
I enjoyed learning what I learned from this book, but I was aware the entire time of having to avert my gaze from the elephant in the room: as a woman, as a Canadian, I am beneath his notice. He does not expect me to succeed. I will take instruction in future from more likeable teachers.