Sunday, April 28, 2013

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

This is a curiously titled tome by Kingsley Amis—curious because it was released in 1997. Should it not then be called “The Queen’s English”? Of course, the title is a play on Amis’ first name: this book, published posthumously two years after the author’s death, is very much a collection of Kingsley’s English, his sense of what the language is and should be, and a grumpy guide to its spelling, pronunciation and overall usage.

Those expecting a farrago of anachronism, snootiness, misogyny, class obsession and good ol’ arbitration, all delivered with tongue placed lightly in the cheek, will not be disappointed. Unlike the other Amis collection I recently read and reviewed, Everyday Drinking, The King’s English doesn’t exactly wear its humour on its sleeve. This book takes as its key antecedent the Fowler brothers’ seminal text The King’s English (1906) and wishes to expand and contemporize their rules surrounding the modern usage of English. The problem is that reading this book in 2013, one can’t help but feel that Amis’ observations aren’t very contemporary at all. And we’re not just talking about his rant about how useless word processors are compared to typewriters.

Take, for example, his section on the proper pronunciation of the word “either.” We all know that “eye-ther” and “eee-ther” are both generally accepted, though we may have our individual preference. Me, I favour the former and agree with Amis that it sounds more officially learned. Yet, that’s not how he puts it. Instead, he takes a gentle dig at lingering class distinctions, saying that eee-ther comes off sounding a bit “underbred.” Of course, there is humour in the audacity of such a statement, and yet I still mistrust the voice saying it.

The King’s English is also not a particularly helpful book to read if you happen to be female. Amis goes to great length outlining the regrettable trend of allowing gender neutral terminology to creep into the language, as if it were a necessary but annoying change on par with, say, no longer being allowed to smoke in bars. He has a whole section on what he calls “womanese”, and states, inaccurately, that malapropism is almost exclusively the domain of the female sex. “I had better take refuge behind the rock-hard factual observation that, unlike most men, women are always getting set phrases wrong.” Is the tongue in the cheek when he writes this? It’s hard to take any of it seriously, especially when it’s coming from someone who considers equality between the sexes to be nothing more than a chimera we should all just give up on.

There are other problems, of course. For a man who published several volumes of poetry, Amis appears to have a rather loose grasp of what it means to speak or write metaphorically. How else would we explain, for example, his chastising us for using words like “panacea” or “crescendo” for anything other than their literal definition? Even when Amis is inarguably right about something, he doesn’t quite get it completely right. He should, for example, be applauded for saying that the rule around split infinitives is nonsense. But he doesn’t go on to say, as Bill Bryson does in his far superior book Mother Tongue, exactly why the rule is nonsense: that it originates out of the fact that, in Latin, the infinitive cannot be split because it is a single word (example: “to love” is amare) and English simply transmuted the rule from that.

Still, there are a few joys coming out of this book. Amis is always engaging and knowledgeable, and he’s able to bring a breadth of knowledge to bear on various elements of our language. The split infinitive rule notwithstanding, his exploration of Latin’s influence on English is thorough and very much worth reading. His guide to common errors between similar words – example: alternate(ly) and alternative(ly) – can also be a great refresher for those of us who learned about them elsewhere.

But the book overall has a mildly dated feel and doesn’t have nearly as much pluck and re-readability as Everyday Drinking. For me, The King’s English will no doubt be a (very) occasionally used reference guide to usage, and little more.

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