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Robert Lowth, Bishop of London: His 1762 grammar is responsible for many of today’s linguistic shibboleths


Nothing so troubled me this year as a glowing review I published on a book dismissing the supposed “rules” of English grammar. I kept reading over it and wondering if I had made a mistake.

I don’t regret the praise I gave to Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99). It is a marvellous book, which everyone interested in language should read. Kamm is quite right to say that the rules grammarians insist on are 18th-century taboos which good writers have always ignored. There is no literate reason to insist on the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” for instance, or the prohibition against splitting infinitives. No linguist on earth believes that language is anything other than usage. If most English speakers use “less” and “fewer” interchangeably, it makes no sense to say that they are wrong.

All true. But an objection made to me by Simon Heffer, one of Kamm’s many targets, nagged away. If you were trying to help poor children get on, you would teach them to observe the “rules”, just as you would encourage them to speak BBC English. Conformity would not only protect them from class prejudice, it would help them to be understood. Inarticulacy is a curse. Success comes when you make others understand you, and not just material success either. Kamm and other linguists could not see it. They were well-spoken men and women promulgating anarchist notions that would keep the poor down.

The objections holds until you realise that the worst users of English are not just poor people who cannot spit out a sentence without an obscenity. The bureaucratic-speak of the civil service, the business-speak of private-sector managers, and the jargon of academics are all the more offensive because their authors do not have the excuse of poverty.

Arguments about grammar should be arguments about style. I do not claim to be anything more than a competent writer. On the rare occasions when I have written a book or article that does not make me shudder on re-reading, I have followed my own style guidelines, which may help you to decide when you should stick by the “rules” of English and when you should ignore them.

1. Say Something.
Corporate mailings from managers, academic papers written to meet a department’s research target, Daily Mail stories on celebrities who have done nothing more than show their cleavage are instantly forgotten. The authors did not want to write them. They have nothing worth saying, and it shows.

It may sound unrealistically high-minded to insist that you must believe in the importance of what you are writing. But the advice applies as much to lowbrow as to highbrow work. Many people try and fail to write pulp bestsellers because their cynicism finds them out. However little you may think of their work, popular authors who succeed in the press and fiction mean what they say as much as their serious counterparts do. They have their own integrity, and understand that the first rule of good writing is to ask why you need to write at all.

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Justin Gregory
February 9th, 2016
1:02 PM
Language is distinction, and some usages are more useful than others. Making the who/whom distinction adds precision and therefore clarity to expression. Fastidiously refusing to begin sentences with "And" or "But" doesn't. What if the "prissies" are simply the ones thinking clearly?

M Kenning
January 28th, 2016
3:01 PM
WH Smith isn't happy.

Albert Hall
January 8th, 2016
2:01 PM
There is, as Mr McAteer points out, a very good reason for distinguishing 'less' from 'fewer'. It is to add precision to what is being said. It dismays me that writers and journalists such as Nick Cohen are content to see inaccuracy and ambiguity creep into our descriptions of the world, just because they think that lazy people ought not to have to go to the trouble of refining their vocabulary and learning and using the most accurate words. Let's all revert to googoogaga looka da wittle doggy-woggy, why don't we?

Steve Jump
January 5th, 2016
2:01 PM
When I hear someone say "less" where I would say "fewer," it's like fingernails on a chalkboard. Do I have a good ear or have I just been brainwashed?

Michael McAteer
January 5th, 2016
3:01 AM
LESS in quantity, FEWER in number. I prefer the element of precision in writing and speech and ultimately in thought.

Jonnymous
January 3rd, 2016
4:01 AM
Nothing is more obvious than the need to establish some kind of baseline from which to orient and motivate education in usage. There should be no need to return to this tiresome subject again and again. Why do we? Because people need to have something to say about it. My, how the circle of nothing does turn. And people scoffed at Heidegger for saying "the nothing noths." Well... there it is, noth-ing away like crazy.

Daniel Zimmerman
January 1st, 2016
3:01 AM
Nice, WHS. I begin to have fewer trust in Nick's ethos when I read "The objections holds . . ." I'd say the beach has less sand than before the storm, and fewer grains of sand.

Aj Kincaid
December 23rd, 2015
9:12 PM
Rebekah, out of sheer curiosity what *possible* relevance does your comment have on this discussion? Is there some reason you feel the need to call Cohen a Zionist? Are there Zionist and non-Zionist schools of thought surrounding good prose style? I will admit that my writing chops hold not a candle to Cohen's but I have been writing a long time now and I can't say I've ever heard of a Zionist or non-Zionist philosophy around English prose style. Could you elucidate what the two schools of thought believe? Otherwise, we're forced to assume you're just a garden variety bigot but I would very much like to give you the opportunity to not be one.

WHS
December 23rd, 2015
8:12 PM
Give me less articles like this; less articles, I pray; less articles that promote poor grammar and pretend there ain't no good reason for it.

Rich C
December 19th, 2015
11:12 PM
If there really is a Zionist conspiracy to improve our prose, would that really be a bad thing?

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