Books: Up to a point, Sir Kingsley

Jonathan Keates applauds a last act of faith in good writing; The King's English: a guide to modern usage by Kingsley Amis, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99,
For that swarm of professional croakers who warn us of the nation's collapse in a welter of godlessness and relativism, few things hint more balefully at impending Armageddon than the decline of "good English". The demise of Latin teaching, the "real books" method of learning to read, and the Church of England's rejection of the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version have been variously blamed for this, as has the belief that anything written before 1900 must by its very nature be elitist and the idea that computers will somehow overwhelm the printed word.

None of these bugbears is without substance, but their credibility is diminished by the sense that the person parading them so hysterically is just another pig-ignorant journo unconcerned with establishing a link between cause and effect.

The appearance of a book by the late Sir Kingsley Amis, borrowing the title of the Fowler brothers' famous volume of 1906, might seem to the croakers like an ammunition-drop among beleaguered guerrillas. Amis is, after all, "sustained by reflecting that the defence of the language is too large a matter to be left to the properly qualified". In this amateur capacity, he feels just as much entitled to wage war as any lexicographer.

As it happens, The King's English (no feminist faffing-about with the royal possessive, please note) is far from being a posthumous saturation- bombardment. The tone is reasonable, urbane, the voice not of the sozzled curmudgeon interviewers liked to evoke, but of a widely read university tutor without chips on the shoulder or axes to grind. Amis is resoundingly opinionated yet never so dogmatic as to reject the protean aspects of language.

He is, however, too emphatically his own man for this to be a mere style manual. What emerges is a trenchant yet entertaining commonplace book. It ranges over everything from meaning and taxonomy to quirks of fashion and shifts in pronunciation. At no point does he unconditionally demand compliance. It is the sense of English as his personal enthusiasm which makes us feel that resistance to his point of view must, in the end, appear as simple rudeness.

Respect, if not absolute concurrence, is due to his emphasis on the increasing value - in a media-driven age - of making a moral distinction between speaking and writing. Talking of "due to", his verdict on its hoary old Manichean struggle with "owing to" is equally worth attention. Decorum is the arbiter: the ears become "organs of grammatical fitness" and the rule that subordinates "due" to "owing" is "worth following for its own sake, not just in deference to the fact that elderly persons happen to know about it".

Are you a berk or a wanker? Under the former heading, Amis lumps those whose intruded glottal stops and grammatical solecisms suffocate English with impurity, a kind of linguistic pollution. Just as poisonous are the wankers, "prissy, fussy, priggish, prim", who kill by hyper-precision. Kingsley's is the via media between slipshod and punctilious, as he falls like a thunderbolt on the ersatz-posh "hyper-urbanism" of "between you and I", on dangling participles or the abuse of "Up to a point, Lord Copper".

On pronunciation he is pragmatic, or at any rate imbued with an old man's resignation. Girls have long since ceased to behave as gels, though "reckonise" and "seckatry" still course with unhealthy vigour. Now and then he loses the point. The section on "because" is delphic in its opacity. There is no excuse for misapplying "cohort" to mean "henchman", and "fine toothcomb", whatever he may claim as to the availability of such an article in prewar shops, remains a hideous misrendering of "fine-toothed comb". Such lapses merely sharpen the book's edge as a last act of faith in uncorrupted discourse.

As a teacher at the City of London School, where the boy Amis learnt his craft, I feel I have something to live up to. And if you're the sort who jibs at that final preposition, this book is definitely for you.

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