Murdering the King's English

The King's English (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Amis, Kingsley]Kingsley Amis's The King's English is not an easy book to write about. It concerns the correct way to speak and write in English, after all. For the careful writer, suddenly every clause is suspect. The pronunciation of the simplest word is called into question. What if I've split an infinitive? So many things to worry about.

Thankfully, while Amis does have some serious pet peeves when it comes to misuse of the language ("casual. Only a wanker makes three syllables of this word."), he is generally tolerant of the variety of pronunciations and forms that make up English. To his mind, worrying about a split infinitive is more likely to result in some linguistic barbarity than just writing as it comes naturally, and many of our more pedantic rules are more to do with asserting one's intellectual superiority than protecting the language. We all know pedants like that, right?

That's not to say that Amis has a lackadaisical approach to matters of grammar and language; he just recognises that the main point of language is to communicate. As long as a sentence is understood, does it matter if it's inelegant? Well, to a point, yes. Particularly if you're looking to be paid for your writing. Journalists and broadcasters get a lot of blame for the erosion of proper English (" the speech of Classic FM, or Clussic Aff-Am in its own manner of speaking."), with Amis rightly asserting that their influence is great enough for these errors to be noteworthy. However, amongst friends and in other less formal settings, pedantry is portrayed as a good way to guarantee fewer party invites in future. (Side note: is this why I don't go to parties anymore? Must ask my mum)

What's interesting is that this is a book only from the mid-'90s, yet for every rule or example that remains relevant, there is another that might raise an eyebrow. For instance, I was very happy to see Amis articulate the difference between alternate and alternative, but had to question his claim that fortnight is "obsolete". He reminds us frequently that language is a living thing, something that is constantly evolving and trying to keep up with the pace of change in society and technology, and some of his grievances already feel old-fashioned. I can only imagine what he would have made of English in the social media age, particularly with the increased influence of American English: "Not every Americanism deserves to have its credentials carefully examined. Some ought to be shot on sight." His views on people who have "low self steam" and are "lack toast and tolerant" would certainly have been entertaining to hear.

Perhaps one of the areas that is most frustrating for a contemporary reader is his insistence on certain pronunciations. While some discrepancies (like the ones above) are clearly just errors, many of his comments relate to regional pronunciations and dialects, and are less controversial in an age where there are far more diverse voices to be heard on TV and radio. I might say "controversy" incorrectly (I'll always be a "con-TROV-er-sy" gal) but Amis lost the battle when it comes to "kilometre" and many others. It's just the nature of language. Again, it's often only the pedants who really care anyway.

This book is worth reading even if your interest in words and grammar is purely functional. For a start, it's very funny, and it has some fascinating information about word derivations that helps to explain where certain common phrases have come from. For serious writers and readers, the book explores why some things just hit the ear wrong, and reminds us that the rules that we might view as self-evident are often anything but. I've altered a few of my writing habits because of it, and have also become more lenient about some of the common half-mistakes that plague Twitter and the like. If nothing else, it encourages more awareness of language, which can only be a good thing. Recommended.


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