The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage

The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage

by Kingsley Amis

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A Parthian shot from one of the most important figures in post-war British fiction, The King's English is the late Kingsley Amis's last word on the state of the language. More frolicsome than Fowler's Modern Usage, lighter than the Oxford English Dictionary, and brimming with the strong opinions and razor-sharp wit that made Amis so


A Parthian shot from one of the most important figures in post-war British fiction, The King's English is the late Kingsley Amis's last word on the state of the language. More frolicsome than Fowler's Modern Usage, lighter than the Oxford English Dictionary, and brimming with the strong opinions and razor-sharp wit that made Amis so popular--and so controversial--The King's English is a must for fans and language purists.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Praised as a superb prose stylist, British writer Amis, who died in 1995, was nonetheless controversial, variously labeled a Communist, Thatcher conservative, alcoholic, misogynist, and philander. Even in The King's English, an entertaining manual that is hardly meant to be exhaustive, Amis's wit and candid opinion prevail. Anyone wishing to distinguish between the words belly and stomach (don't even consider tummy) or feeling particular angst over the crossed 7, the disappearance of Latin, and the use of such popular expressions as in-depth, in terms of, or whatever will find a discerning explanation. For insight into Amis's life and work, readers can turn to the authorized biography by Jacobs, a Fleet Street journalist and broadcaster. Amis wrote 24 novels, including the acclaimed Lucky Jim, plus several works of poetry and nonfiction. Focusing on the novels, Jacobs deftly reveals a man who is not always admirable or likable but is certainly intriguing. Recommended for literary collections.Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN
Kirkus Reviews
A delightfully arch, irreverent handbook for those who dare to speak or write the Kingþs EnglishþKingsley Amisþs English, that is. The late author, who earned his reputation as one of the Angry Young Men of British literature in the 1950s, apparently reserved his greatest ire for those who misused language. To do so willfully in print was an indication of bad judgment, to do so unwittingly in conversation was mere stupidity. In an effort to curtail the abuse of the Kingþs own (and to launch an attack on creeping Americanisms, such as the use of þadvocateþ and þprogressþ as verbs), Amis wrote a þguide to modern usageþ that isnþt. But it is a gleeful intellectual stomp through malapropisms, false unions, split infinitives, danglers, floaters, berks, and wankers. Think of it as a twisted Strunk & White for the English middle class, to which the London-born, Cambridge-educated Amis certainly belonged. But he was no avatar of class-consciousnessþin fact, just the opposite. He deplored the excessive use of French and discouraged affected pronunciation. Anglicized French words, like þhors dþoeuvres,þ for example, were to be pronounced with robust disregard for accuracy. Seen from an American angle, Amisþs book provides a highly entertaining glimpse into the social implications of speech in Britainþwhere accent so influences public imageþas well as Amisþs own stylistic consciousness, which permeates this text. (Who else would devote a lengthy entry to þPronunciation: he-sheþ?) But Amisþs handbook has a serious undercurrent, as well, no matter how dry theauthorþs wit. þI am sustained,þ he wrote, þby reflecting that the defense of language is too large a matter to be left to the properly qualified.þ Although useless as a guide to the English language, Amisþs book functions as a droll literary tract and a reminder that þthe price of a good style, like that of other desirable things, is eternal vigilance.þ (Eric Jacobs's biography of Amis is also to be published in June. See p. 634.)

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The King's English

A Guide to Modern Usage

By Kingsley Amis

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Kingsley Amis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7376-6



-able and -ible

I once wrote deduceable instead of deducible in a book, though nobody then or since has taken me up on it. A small point as they go, perhaps, but Rule 1 of writing acceptably is to get everything right as far as you can, and in this case I had neglected to.

If I were assembling a complete guide to usage I should feel bound to give here a list of -able and -ible words, but I am not so I do not. Fowler gives a list of '-ble words not in -able' with something like 140 adjectives in it. There follow similarly long lists of 'negatives in -able not having -un', and others of comparable length and function, five such lists in all containing between them a thousand words ending in -able and -ible. Lists look impressive but their usefulness is limited. Consult a dictionary.


I use this term to refer to the prominence given a spoken syllable by stressing it. So in hypnosis, for example, the middle syllable receives accentuation. My hope is to avoid the ambiguity that use of the sometime synonymous accent might bring.

There is a tendency with English words to put the accentuation as near the front of a word as possible. This tendency was once strong enough to make a schoolmaster some years ago do his best to pronounce anticipatory accentuating its first syllable, a difficult task even with the number of syllables halved, and a noise like ántsiptry attempted. More recently the old tendency has been at work on words like contribute and distribute. Once to all appearance fixed irreversibly as contríbute and distríbute, these are in unpopular process of becoming cóntribute and dístribute. Resistance to all linguistic change is obviously a healthy instinct, but perhaps not so much in the present case, and the accentuation díspute for the noun, much execrated, seems natural enough, in line with the general tendency of the language to stress noun on first syllable as against verb on second, as in présent and presént. I predict that all three changes will shortly be established.

American practice in this matter seems, to a British ear, whimsical if not perverse. Sometimes Americans will throw accentuation further forward than we do, on to the first syllable of foreign words like consommé and Dubonnet, though they might argue that their practice sounds at any rate less defiantly non-French than ours. In the case of the noun research, their practice of stressing the first syllable is spreading over here, much to the resentment of conservative or older speakers. This feeling is perhaps misplaced, since the Americans are only following a traditional rule of the language; see remark on dispute above.

I am less wonderfully tolerant over the other and opposite American habit of shifting accentuation the opposite way, especially in personal names. This has been going on over here too for a long time: my father had a friend called Mr Barrel or Barrell who understandably stressed his surname on its second syllable. Bernard, forename and surname, is perhaps a more typical case: Bernárd in USA, Bérnard in UK, though the surname is tending to follow US convention over here and the BBC lays it down. But then the BBC also lays down that the surname Bottome – a pseudonym, strange to relate – should be stressed on the second syllable. In fact, both Bottome and Botham are cosmeticised forms of the old English word bottom, for centuries nothing to do with anyone's posterior, signifying a valley or its floor, found in surnames and meaning 'dweller in the valley' (cf. Wood, Hill, Holt, etc.) and in place-names like Six Mile Bottom.

To resume briefly: my tolerance wears thin when I hear an accentuation that seems to me wilfully or absurdly eccentric, as when an American in the flesh, no broadcaster he but a decent young fellow, came up with the surname Fussell, an English name, stressed in the American way, which I happen to know is not the stress given it by the American writer of that name. (Does the young fellow talk about Bertránd Russéll?) And it – my tolerance – snapped altogether the other day when I heard an English broadcaster refer to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with Juliet given last-syllable-stress treatment. What next? Antony and Cleop'trah? See also AMERICANISMS.

Adaptation, adaption

The term adaption, presumably made in the first place on strong analogy with adoption, is driving out the older and perhaps more correct adaptation, especially on literary fringes. Publishers and suchlike will talk to authors about possible adaptions of their novels, etc., for the screen or stage. If only to reduce imputations of illiteracy, I mean to continue with adaptation for the moment, but the time will probably come when it will seem first quaint and then unintelligible. Sensible people will have switched to adaption before then, as they are already switching to retraction (rather than retractation).

I ask for Glenmorangie malt whisky stressing the third syllable of the name, even though I happen to know the head man there stresses the second, because a rational being prefers being understood, and served, to being right. No contest if the place serves The Macallan.


Near the end of his enjoyable piece, 'Politics and the English Language' (1946), George Orwell gives six rules for decent writing 'that one can rely on when instinct fails'. They are not infallible, these rules, as he would have agreed, but no. 1 has a great deal to be said for it:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Adherence to this prohibition would certainly cut down the tedious incidence of addressing this, that and the other, of addressing a question, a problem, a situation, a difficulty that requires to be faced in defiance of the many attempts to sweep it under the carpet, confronting most newspaper readers most mornings. As so often, both reader and writer are helped to feel that some progress is made towards handling, even solving, a question or problem merely by mentioning it. A really fresh approach calls for fresh words, and without them silence is at least fairer.


This colloquialism, already showing signs of age, can be taken as descending partly from aggression and partly from aggravation in the colloquial, improper sense of annoyance, exasperation. It is often decried, but in its striking of the balance between the two in expressions like I kept away because I couldn't stand the thought of all the aggro it has or had its niche in the informal vocabulary. Plenty of disreputably descended words and persons have found a tolerated if not a welcome place in this country, to risk sounding pompous.


This word is perhaps not felt by its occasional users to be an archaism and probably not felt either to be just a fancy variant of though or although. It can carry a sense of special understanding and indulgence missing from the more ordinary conjunctions, as in, it might be, 'He was not seriously annoyed, albeit a trifle irritated, that she left without saying good night' – not annoyed, just, well, it might have been silly of him but he couldn't help feeling a little put out that she left, etc. Not the sort of thing we hope to find in our sort of book, maybe, but surely innocuous enough. And it is right, or at any rate understandable, to be impatient with anent and aught and perchance, but to write an occasional albeit never did anyone much harm if an eye was kept on the tendency.


Fowler is right so much of the time that it is a guilty pleasure to correct him on those rare occasions when insufficient knowledge on his part or a change in circumstances has shown him to be wrong. So in writing of ale and beer he asserts that 'in ordinary use, as at table, both denote the same thing, including the pale and excluding the dark varieties of malt liquor; the difference is that beer is the natural current word, and ale is' a horrible thing called a Genteelism, like stomach for belly. (See BELLY and GENTEELISM.) No longer true, if ever. It remains the case that only a fearful fellow would ask, say, if you would care for a glass of ale with your ham sandwich, but the two drinks are distinct, ale being the result of a fermentation of malt, and beer being the same thing flavoured with hops (or ginger, etc.). Malt liquor, especially in the USA, became the name for an extra strong ale.


Allergy is an unusual sensitivity to the action of particular substances or foods, such as gluten or shellfish, that are harmless to normal people. The reaction can be serious as well as distressing. It is perhaps yobbish to say one is allergic to certain people when all that is meant is that they get on one's nerves.

All right

I hope I need not say that this is the correct form, making two separate words of it. The one-word travesty, alright, was said in the A–G volume of the Supplement to OED in 1972 to be 'a frequent spelling of all right'. Yet the citation there of most recent date is taken from MEU of 1926, where Fowler says, in part, that alright, 'if seldom allowed by the compositors to appear in print, is often seen ... in MS'.

Fowler never said anything without good reason, and I can testify personally that in my schooldays before the Second War alright was indeed often seen – and nearly as often derided. I remember part of a solemn condemnation that ran, 'Alright is always and altogether all wrong,' and the incorrect form became nearly as much a favourite target of popular scorn as get in the sense of 'obtain' or 'become'. Perhaps this did the trick; something did, anyway, for alright is very seldom seen nowadays. Its appearance in the title of an amusing television show of the 1990s, It'll be Alright on the Night, a succession of embarrassingly spoilt takes, may seem a conscious barbarism. Even so there will perhaps be many whom it offends.

I am one of them. No doubt as fully aware as most people that language is nothing but a series of signs to convey meaning, and that in this sense no damage seems to be threatening any part of our existing arrangements, I still feel that to inscribe alright is gross, crass, coarse and to be avoided, and I now say so. Its interdiction is as pure an example as possible of a rule without a reason, and in my case may well show nothing but how tenacious a hold early training can take.


This word, as Fowler properly reminds us, is indeed an adverb and not a conjunction, but it would be dull to forbid its conjunctional use altogether. Grammatical rules do not apply so strictly to comic writing and dialogue. A vernacular style can very readily produce boring or offensive results, but no amount of grammar would alleviate that.

Alternate(ly) and alternative(ly)

There is no excuse but the grossest similarity in appearance to confuse these two, but people muddle them up all the time. Alternately means 'first one, then the other, then the one, then the other, and so on'; alternatively means 'another possibility is that ...' Similarly with the adjectives alternate and alternative.

Since alternative already contains the sense of 'another possibility', it is saying things twice over to speak of 'another alternative'. Remember that Mrs Thatcher said, 'There is no alternative,' not 'There is no other alternative.'

Exception: An Americanism that sounds anomalous to British ears, as Americanisms will, is contained in the phrase 'alternate world' and its derivatives. This refers to a kind of science-fiction story or idea whereby some great crisis of the past went the other way and correspondingly changed history since that point. Thus a favourite speculation involves a world in which the South won the American Civil War. British readers are advised to follow this trend in the science-fiction context and nowhere else.


I open this large subject by declaring that in almost all political and social matters I am strongly pro-American. So I should be, considering how much I owe America and Americans. Thanks to them I enjoyed one of the best years of my life in 1958–9, mainly at Princeton University; everybody who served alongside US forces in the Second World War has reason to respect them; I thank country and people for many hundreds of hours of pleasurable entertainment; two of the art-forms that have meant most to me, jazz and science fiction, have a strong claim to be American creations. And every British person, along with other millions, has America and Americans to thank for life and liberty.

Any American who might happen to be reading this could be forgiven for mentally preparing to receive an emphatic 'but' followed by an uproar of objurgation. Here I hope to disappoint such anxiety a little. Let me at once affirm something that takes us a little closer to matters of language and is the best test of the sincerity of what I have been saying. As I wrote in 1985, apart from being a politidate, the year 1776 is

a good marker for the point or stage at which English ceased to be solely the language of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom [and their progeny] and became also that of autonomous speech-communities round the world.

The vital, all-conceding word here is 'autonomous'. In his heart, and however he may vote, no Englishman readily allows linguistic equality to an American or anyone else born outside these shores. Not even this Englishman allows it readily, and I take that as evidence of a sound conservative instinct. Nevertheless it must bow to history and reality.

As a matter of fact, many Americanisms, that is terms or usages originating in America, are embedded so deeply in British speech and writing that they are no longer thought of as such. This tendency goes back a long way. In 1789, Benjamin Franklin sent Noah Webster a list of unauthorised words that should carry 'a discountenancing mark' in his eventual American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). These included such barbarous coinages as noticed as a verb and advocate and progress also as verbs, also opposed ('tho' not a new word'). Rather later, Edgar Allan Poe apologised for using the word richness, a forcible term he says, borrowed from 'colloquy', i.e., one supposes, American conversation.

This catalogue could be much extended. A list of fully assimilated English words and expressions that started life as American coinages or revivals would include antagonise, anyway, back-number (adjectival phrase), back yard (as in nimby), bath-robe, bumper (car), editorial (noun), fix up, just (=quite, very, exactly), nervous (=timid), peanut, placate, realise (=see, understand), reckon, soft drink, transpire, washstand.

In some cases, Americanisms have driven out a native equivalent or are in process of doing so. For instance, in no particular order, ad has pretty well replaced advert as an abbreviation for advertisement, a Press clipping is driving out cutting as a piece taken from a newspaper, a whole new ballgame, that is a metaphorical game of baseball, is what meets the harried circumspect eye where once a different kettle of fish or a horse of another colour furnished the challenge, and someone quit his job where not so long ago he quitted it.


Excerpted from The King's English by Kingsley Amis. Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Kingsley Amis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Hailed as one of the great prose stylists to appear in England since the Second World War, Kingsley Amis is the author of more than 20 novels, including Lucky Jim and the Booker-prize winning The Old Devils. Also recognized as a distinguished poet and literary critic, he died in 1995.

Hailed as one of the great prose stylists to appear in England since the Second World War, Kingsley Amis is the author of more than 20 novels, including Lucky Jim and the Booker-prize winning The Old Devils. Also recognized as a distinguished poet and literary critic, he died in 1995.

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