Oliver Kamm’s book Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage is a treat. I’ve always tried to write clearly about economics, a field strewn with jargon used in proper (as shorthand) and improper (as obfuscation) ways. I believe clear writing is a pretty reliable guide to clear thinking on the part of the author, and always liked George Orwell’s famous essay Politics and the English Language.
Accidence Will Happen is a heartfelt plea to respect the vitality of English as a living language whose usage changes. It scorns the “shibboleths” of grammar pedants and usage sticklers. (Orwell too argued against the tyranny of ‘standard English’, although his rules for writing are over-rigid in their turn.)
I largely agree with Oliver Kamm, even though I have a fondness for using ‘whom’ in the ‘right’ places and considering ‘data’ to be a plural. And this observation in the book strikes me as true and to the point: “Shibboleths are not rules of grammar, let alone marks of civilisation: they are a means of keeping divisions sharp. …. The sticklers’ clause is not about culture but about class.”
As an observer of teens who attended the local school, this class distinction is evident in the way the kids from middle-class families readily switch between standard English at home and the local London street dialect with their friends. And growing up myself in a working-class household in north west England, it was all too clear that losing one’s regional accent was a requirement for upward mobility.
The moral is: pause before you sneer at the greengrocer’s stray apostrophes.