Few things are more likely to provoke the disapproval of the bien-pensant left than criticising someone’s grammar. The very idea that one way of speaking is more ‘correct’ than another is anathema to them. Under the guise of being helpful, it asserts the supremacy of the white educated bourgeoisie and seeks to rob the working class and ethnic minorities of any pride in their own culture. It’s a form of ‘linguistic imperialism’.
This explains the tidal wave of hostility that engulfed Michael Gove earlier this week after he issued some letter-writing guidance to officials in the Ministry of Justice. Typical Gove, eh? First he tries to impose his -narrow, right-wing view of British history on the nation’s schoolchildren and now he’s telling senior civil servants they should all write exactly like him. Time to stick his head in the stocks again and reach for the rotten -tomatoes.
I first became aware of Gove’s latest ‘outrage’ via the reaction on -Twitter and googled his memo expecting to find a detailed enunciation of grammatical principles so archaic they hadn’t been in use since the outbreak of the second world war: ‘The particle “to” and the infinitive form of the verb should not be separated…’ etc, etc.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover that the vast majority of Gove’s ‘rules’ weren’t grammatical at all, more of a beginner’s guide to how to write good English. For instance, he counsels against using too many adverbs, which ‘add little’. Nothing controversial about that. Indeed, it reminded me of Elmore Leonard’s third and fourth rules of good writing: ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue’ and ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely.’
Gove also says that, when responding to letters, civil servants should maintain a polite tone, use the active and not the passive voice and try to spell correspondents’ names correctly. That doesn’t strike me as unreasonable either. If I’d written to a minister at the MoJ, I would be quite irritated if the functionary tasked with replying misspelt my name.
One thing Gove’s critics don’t appear to grasp is that it’s common practice for incoming ministers to write to their departmental officials letting them know how they’d like them to respond to letters. Why? Because more often than not, the civil servants are writing on their behalf and the letters bear their signatures. If I were lucky enough to have an assistant doing a similar job for me, I would send him or her a style guide the size of a telephone directory.
OK, Gove did include a couple of grammatical pointers. He advised against beginning a sentence with ‘however’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’, ‘also’ or ‘although’ and suggested that, strictly speaking, those words should appear after the verb. He also asked his officials not to use ‘impact’ as a verb. It was this unbelievable effrontery that prompted Oliver Kamm, Britain’s leading anti-grammar Nazi, to launch a fusillade against Gove in the Times. ‘It is one thing to have style preferences,’ he thundered. ‘For a minister to require civil servants to follow his own when these have nothing to do with “correct grammar” and impede good prose, and for him to have escaped public derision for it, is -singular.’
Putting aside the fact that Gove didn’t escape public derision — which would have been ‘singular’, you pompous fussbudget — it’s nonsense to say that his guide impedes good prose. On the contrary, nearly all of Gove’s rules can be traced to George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, an essay that’s generally regarded as the best guide to writing good English that has ever been produced. To give just one example, Orwell’s fourth rule is ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’. Kamm singles this out for condemnation in his Times article, apparently unaware that it was first set out by the finest prose stylist of the 20th century.
There’s one final reason why it was sensible of Gove to set out these rudimentary principles. I’m absolutely certain that for every Oliver Kamm who bridles whenever these old–fashioned rules are observed, there are 10,000 Toby Youngs who feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored. If I received a letter from a secretary of state using ‘impact’ as a verb, I’d scrunch it up into a ball and hurl it at the wall. Given that Gove is in the business of winning friends and influencing people, annoying one person instead of 10,000 is good politics.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.