Sometimes it's okay to chop and change the way we write. But most of the time, it isn't

Even if we know that conventional spelling and grammar are arbitrary, they are still markers of quality

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The Independent Online

My friend Oliver Kamm and I have fallen out. He has a new book out in February called Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage. The blurb says that “to deliberately split an infinitive, in the right context, is perfectly alright”. I disagree.

Not that I would say it is wrong: Oliver and I agree on that. Many of the so-called rules of grammar are mistaken. There is nothing ungrammatical about a split infinitive. Grammar describes how a language is used, and most English speakers and writers split infinitives routinely. It is not as if it makes sentences hard to understand. We know what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: “Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.” Although it is notable that this line from Sonnet 142 is the only example of a split infinitive in his work.

As for writing “all right” as “alright”, it should be more obvious that neither is right or wrong, because there is not even a rule derived from Old English or Latin that justifies the convention that it should be two words rather than one. It is merely a preference that some people have, based on an old-fashioned view that the single-word form is casual rather than “proper” written English.

Language and spellings change. I prefer to write “for ever” rather than “forever”, but I realise that this is now rare. My mother still writes to-day with a hyphen, which used to be the usual spelling in Britain until the 1950s. While a change is occurring, there will be disputes about how to write something, and so Oliver is quite right that to describe some usages as “right” and others “wrong” is incorrect. Some are conventional, others less common and others are unconventional.

It is not wrong, therefore, to say that the plural of accident is accidence, but it would be highly unusual and if someone’s spelling were consistently that unexpected it would be hard to read their writing.

This is where Oliver and I part ways. Although, according to his “The Pedant” column in The Times on Saturday, I could have written, “This is where Oliver and me part ways.” Nothing ungrammatical about it, and it is how some people talk.

 

My defence of pedantry is twofold. The negative argument is that the writer or speaker should do as little as possible to distract the reader or listener from what is being said. And the positive argument is that it is worth observing the conventions of “correct” spelling and grammar, even if we know that they are arbitrary, because they are markers of quality.

That was my argument for The Banned List, my collection of clichés and jargon: that if you avoid annoying people, by censoring phrases such as “whisper it” and “wow factor”, they are more likely to think that you are cleverer than you actually are. I would never say that I eat my own dogfood – a marketing phrase for a company that uses its own products to prove how good they are – but it has worked for me.

Where I think I disagree with Oliver, although I haven’t read his book yet and will return to this subject when I have done so, is that he implies that it is all right, or alright, to write in a way that he would not.

The truth is that Oliver is more than a friend. He is a bit of hero. He was one of the early bloggers, one of the stars of the literary form that blossomed so brightly and so briefly between about 2002 and 2009 (when Twitter came and it all changed again).

I admired him mostly because he was part of a movement on the left that insisted on standing against totalitarianism. But also because he used language with such precision. He would never have used a construction such as “for you and I” or “alright”, and it would have weakened the credibility of his arguments if he had.

 

Head in the clouds and neck attached to a railing

Once upon a time, people chained themselves to railings to protest against the denial of the vote to women.

On Sunday night, some joker put his neck in a U-lock attached to the railings around the Palace of Westminster to protest against, well, something. According to an email press release I received from Occupy Democracy, the protest was “to highlight the corruption of our democracy by corporate interests”.

Part of me tries very hard to be glad that young people are so engaged in politics that they are prepared to do something other than vandalising phone boxes (although as no one uses phone boxes any more that really would be pointless). But their demands lack the clarity, let alone rightness, of universal suffrage.

Anyway, the email says that Arran released himself after five hours “due to concerns about swelling that was occurring around his neck”. What was that I was saying about grammar and credibility?

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