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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam