The MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued a style guide for his staff to use. It seems to have attracted much ridicule. I haven’t seen the original document myself, but some of the contents have been well-publicised. I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter.
Is a style guide needed at all?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that official documents are often so badly written that sometimes they are impossible to understand, or composed of so many clichés and corporate guff that you can’t help but think that whoever wrote them used some kind of random BS generator and then put in a few “ands” and “buts” to make sentences out of the results.
Consider the recent education technology strategy published by the Department for Education in England. It’s unreadable: you can read my textual analysis of it if you like. So inured have we become to this kind of meaningless drivel dressed up in words and phrases intended to make it sound important that one CEO of an educational organisation told me over a cup of coffee that he’s become so used to that kind of language that until he’d read my analysis he hadn’t even noticed it. If Rees-Mogg can make even one of his staff think about communicating rather than just writing, that would be wonderful.
However, this guide is also not needed — or shouldn’t be — because the government already has a perfectly good one. In that list of words to avoid you will find:
deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered - not abstract concepts like improvements or priorities)
drive (you can only drive vehicles, not schemes or people)
drive out (unless it’s cattle)
going forward (it’s unlikely we are giving travel directions)
in order to (superfluous - do not use it)
one-stop shop (we are government, not a retail outlet)
The problem is, people in government don’t seem to consult this guide, or at least not in education. See, for example, the education technology strategy referred to above, in which agendas are driven and ambitions (not even solutions) are delivered. Dreadful.
What is OK, according to the Rees-Mogg style guide
Apparently, non-titled men should be addressed with Esq after their names. According to Debretts, the authority on etiquette, male members of Parliament are supposed to be addressed with Esq after their names, while the rest of us lowly men have to make do with “Mr”. I have to say it does seem rather old-fashioned and pointless to address all men as Esq.
It would have been far more useful in my opinion had the guide informed us of how to address women. Again, according to Debretts, the most acceptable option is Ms or, if you don’t know their name, Madam, unless they sign a letter to you with the word Miss or Mrs after their name. I tend to address women in emails as Ms unless invited to do otherwise. (For my own part, I don’t see why I need to know whether or not a woman is married: it’s none of my business. To me it smacks of of a way of letting me know if they’re “available”, which I consider to be insulting to both parties.)
I really don’t know why he insists that imperial measurements have to be used, given that we were supposed to have gone metric nearly 50 years ago. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that some of us still think in terms of miles and pounds rather than kilometres and kilograms.
And then there’s the injunction to type two spaces after a full stop. This comes from back in the days when typewriters were used, and they mostly had monospaced type (like Courier New). Even the government’s technology has moved on from typewriters, so this seems rather old-fashioned just for the sake of tradition — unless of course his office staff still use Olivettis.
What is not OK, according to the Rees-Mogg style guide
The guide lists some words and phrases that are not to be used. For example, the word “unacceptable” must be avoided. This is absolutely right, for three reasons.
First, saying something is unacceptable doesn’t tell you how it should be. If you’re a teacher, you wouldn’t write on a pupil’s work “Unacceptable”: you’d say why (I hope).
Second, consider this statement by Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London:
The level of knife crime across our country is unacceptable.
When I read that, I said to my other half, “I wonder what level of violence would be acceptable.”
Third, think of the corollary: acceptable. My line manager’s line manager of a position I’d been in for two days told me that a document I’d produced was “acceptable”. I am not a violent man, but it was all I could do to restrain myself from ramming it down his throat. If you can’t understand just how patronising and insulting it sounds try it out at home:
You (to your partner, parent or offspring): So, what’s for dinner tonight?
Them: I’m making a vegetarian casserole with sauteéd potatoes and drizzled in a sauce the recipe for which is top secret and has been in my family for generations.
You: That’s acceptable.
I’d be surprised if the dinner ends up on your plate rather than on your head or in the dustbin.
Rees-Mogg is also against the use of the word “Very”. He’s been attacked for that too. However, the very first sentence of the first chapter of Dreyer’s English states:
Here’s your first challenge: Go a week without writing
He goes on to explain that if, without the word “very”, your writing seems weaker, then find a stronger and more effective way to make your point. Given that every promoter of good writing shudders at the inclusion of words like “very” and “actually”, and given that Dreyer has been a copywriter at Penguin Random House for twenty years, perhaps it’s not just, to quote from an article by David Mitchell in the Guardian, one of Rees-Mogg’s “stupid rules”.
On that subject, the only part of Mitchell’s article that is worth commenting on, once you ignore the suggestion of an ex-Prime Minister of Italy masturbating, Rees-Mogg not caring about social misery, and his rules being stupid, is as follows:
In the English language, there are no rules that supersede usage. If the majority of speakers and writers start using “hopefully” to mean “it is to be hoped”, rather than “in a hopeful way”, then that becomes the word’s primary definition. The speakers have spoken and the rest is linguistic history.
This is an interesting point of view for the following reasons.
First, it is a political, with a small “p”, position. The battle between liberalism and conservatism in language has been going on for a long time. For example, in his essay Authority and American Usage, David Foster Wallace discusses the positions of those who believe a dictionary should reflect how words are used, versus those who believe that the dictionary should be an arbiter of authority.
It’s a good reminder that dictionaries are not value-free. As an example, when I was given a pocket dictionary when I started secondary school, I did what every boy does: looked up all the “dirty” words. And for “masturbation”, the definition was “self-abuse”. Don’t believe me? Check it out:
Whatever you think about the practice of masturbation, you can’t deny that that definition is not objective: it reflects the predominant values of the time.
Webster believed that “grammar and lexicography should be moral agents, shielding the public by omitting language that was morally repugnant and offensive and providing definitions that were morally instructive.”
I haven’t read the book, but from reading several reviews of it it sounds fascinating. (Please note that the link above is an Amazon affiliate link.)
The second reason that Mitchell’s position is interesting is that it suggests we just give up and go with the flow. Yes, if more and more people use a word in a particular way, eventually it will start to be defined in that way. But surely that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to preserve perfectly good words.
For instance, more and more people use the word “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”, rather than unbiased. But we have a perfectly good word for “uninterested”: it’s “uninterested”. Why not do what we can to respect such distinctions as between disinterested and uninterested? I read a film review once that described the film as compulsory viewing. I assume the critic meant “compulsive” viewing. Should we all start using words incorrectly just because some people are either too lazy or ill-informed to use them properly?
While I don’t agree with all of the rules imposed by the Rees-Mogg style guide, I think that anything which can help to encourage government document writers to write more clearly and less lazily is a step in the right direction.
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