22 MARCH 1997, Page 43

The old chauvinist in spanking form

James Michie

THE KING'S ENGLISH: A GUIDE TO MODERN USAGE by Kingsley Amis HarperCollins, £16.99, pp. 270 The jacket, like the book itself, can't help raising questions. Why does it show Kingsley Amis in his handsome youth, heavily ribbed shoes to the fore, sitting on a sofa reading (one can just make out) Coleridge's Biographica Literaria, many Years before he had written a word of this? him, considering it was she who knighted l'im, isn't it called The Queen's English? And why does it have such a misleadingly comprehensive subtitle? 'A Sporting Tour of Fowler's Country' would have done better.

Our guide through this notoriously tricky territory is a wise old hand, but peppery and rather unpredictable. To banish forever, long ago accepted by the dictionar- ies, as 'the vilest false union of all' strikes me as Canute-like, as does his opposition to the 'Americanism' Do you have a light? on the grounds that do you have such-and- such should mean `do you normally have it?' (like a dog). This is to waste on mar- mosets ammunition which could have been better used to shoot such beasts as pristine in the sense of 'spotless' and cohort used to "lean 'colleague', both of which are unex- pectedly spared. Sometimes, apparently exhausted by exasperation at the misuse of a word (dilemma, haver, decimate), he gives `the careful writer' an odd counsel of despair: avoid it altogether. On pronuncia- tion, a thorny area in our variegated soci- ety, he is quirkily dictatorial: 'Woe betide anybody I catch pronouncing the name Beethoven with a separable H!' We are sternly warned that to say the word 'ate' as if it rhymed with 'gate' is 'pedantry' (I polled six educated southerners; they came down three on each side), and that to sound the h in words like which and why, as southerners can't, is an 'affectation', an `artificiality'. Tell that to Miss Jean Brodie!

Kingsley loved to present his prejudices outrageously. I remember him clinching an argument with me about Milton by a simple mime, one hand pinching his nose, the other pulling a lavatory chain. There's plenty of gratuitous provocation here. As a supporter of the continental crossed 7 (which makes scribbled telephone numbers less likely to be misread) I was amazed to learn that it is a mark of either 'gross affec- tation' or 'straightforward ignorance'. Friends on the other side of the Atlantic will just love this one: 'I have small difficul- ty in avoiding anything that could be called American literature.' Female readers may, or may not, be amused by such coat-trailing as 'A sane feminist, and there must surely be such a creature. . . 'We all know well enough by now that all men are cowards, do we not?' and The rock-hard factual observation that, unlike most men, women are always getting set phrases wrong.' Gays may bridle (or whatever they do, as I can hear Kingsley mutter) at the curious last sentence of his entry on the name they've unhappily chosen to be known by: 'We lucky ones can afford to get generous with our much larger and richer vocabulary.'

Half the fun of reviewing a book like this is to pick quarrels and nits. To the nits. Is it just to call Goldsmith's line fares the land, to hastening ills a prey' an irremediable and destructive piece of self- repetition' (isn't it a pleasing echo? and how 'self-repetition'?), especially when Kingsley himself talks of something 'handi- ly coming to hand'? When he writes, 'Who cares? Only you and me and the occasional reader,' is it a blunder or a tease? To pro- nounce eng as spelt is not to do something `that would be unique in the English lan- guage' — witness 'lengthen' and 'penguin'. The town of Sedbergh appears as `Sed- burgh' and Professor Ross of U and non-U fame as 'Rose'.

Having said that (a phrase I'm forbidden to use), I warmly welcome this useful, amusing, outspoken, argument- and thought-provoking work. On small points, Kingsley is puckishly erudite: he neatly catches T. S. Eliot out for using 'enormity' instead of 'enormousness' and luvescence' instead of the correctly formed 'juvenes- cence% he testifies to the fact that before the war you could ask for and buy over a shop counter something called a 'tooth- comb'; with a straight face he defines the subtle difference between a berk and a wanker. On bigger issues involving long entries, he is often memorable. I recommend the adjacent pieces, 'Four- letter words' and 'Fowler', the latter a fine, reverent tribute to his hero; the piece on the hyphen is exemplary; `Typewriter vs. Word-processor' is a gem of unfashionable sense that should be read in conjunction with his friend Larkin's essay explaining why he disliked poetry being read aloud.

Kingsley Amis was one of the best stylists of his generation. Underneath the ordinary-blokeish surface of his prose there is great care in construction: he knew his way around a sentence. Over and over again he advises would-be writers to consult a dictionary, to apply to Fowler. Barring its histrionic display of prejudice, this book is badly needed now, when more and more journalists turn in copy that is slovenly or ignorant in terms of acceptable usage. When only the other day, in a serious book review, my eye caught `Homer's infamous "rosy-fingered dawn" the grimacing ghost of Kingsley rose before me, pulling that chain.