Proofreading Tips: Book Review

Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage 

Summer’s here – how about some holiday reading? Published recently by Weidenfeld & Nicolson there’s Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage by Oliver Kamm – and it’s full of food for thought. 

Oliver Kamm writes on English usage in The Times, and in this book he has ‘sticklers’ in his sights. These are the pedants, purists and prescriptive grammarians who refer to ‘correct English’ and who lament a perceived deterioration in standards. Oliver Kamm refers to this as a decline fallacy and says 

“pundits instinctively confuse change with decline” 

He goes on to say: 

“We do need conventions of usage. They provide a shared stock of reference and mode of communication, and they encourage clarity … but what makes up English conventions is not the arbitrary preferences of authorities: it’s how native speakers actually use the language.”

In Part One he relates the history of grammar pedants, who started off with the best of intentions and have latterly sunk into grumpiness. John Dryden, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift contributed to this history. Lindley Murray (see postscript) wrote an influential guide in 1795, which was the standard textbook for over a hundred years. The twentieth century saw volumes by Strunk and White (I always read that as Stranz and Fairchild?), H W Fowler, Ernest Gower and Michael Dummett. Kingsley Amis and John Humphrys have also had their say. 

Oliver Kamm pinpoints the shortcomings exhibited by recent prescriptive grammarians, including Simon Heffer and N M Gwynne. Simon Heffer’s Guide to English is awash with the writer’s own prejudices, and Gwynne…? As well as the ruthless dissection in ‘Accidence’ there’s a perceptive post, ‘Gwynne’s Grammar: an unbelievably positive review’, in the ‘Stroppy Editor’ blog about ‘Gwynglish’ – the overly fussy language which Mr Gwynne devotes his energies to (and there’s a stranded preposition just for fun). 

Oliver Kamm lists and examines ten characteristics of grammar ‘sticklers’ including the observations that they: 

  • confuse their stylistic preferences with correct English 
  • think that there is correct English and the rest 
  • think a word’s origins tell us what it means 
  • ignore usage 
  • lack a sense of proportion 

In Part Two, Oliver Kamm lists an A to Z of ‘usage conundrums’. It’s interesting to compare your own boundaries/prejudices/usage with his interpretations. I’d suggest more caution than he does with

  • alright/all right
  • flaunt/flout 
  • try and/try to 

…but, as he says: 

“There is however, no criterion available for judging usage other than the way people speak and write.” 

I recommend this book to liberate your thinking about grammar, and to serve as a useful source of information. 


York’s lesser known listed buildings include a quaint summer house in the grounds of The Mount School. It dates from the eighteenth century and originally stood in the garden of the (then) eminent grammarian Lindley Murray. Margaret Drabble referred to this summer house as ‘the Lindley Murray’ in a description of her schooldays, and it looks like a perfect writing retreat. It’s illustrated above, along with the house Lindley Murray occupied in Holgate Road, York (opposite The Fox pub which illustrated the previous Proofreading Tips Lorem Ipsum and the Quick Brown Fox). Lindley Street and Murray Street are nearby. 

Photograph of the Lindley Murray summer house by Olivia Brabbs, and copyright of The Mount School, with thanks

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).


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