Sunday, 28 July 2019

Mogg's rules

No sooner had Jacob Rees Mogg accepted the position of Leader of the House of Commons than news emerged about him issuing a list of language rules to his staff. 


I'm not a fan of enforced speech, (regardless of who is doing it) and have written quite a lot about the kind of arbitrary pedantry which passes for 'good style' in the minds of many editors and journalists (see here, here, here and here for examples). I've even made a video about it. 

While it's important for people to write clearly, Rees-Mogg's rules probably seem baffling to those uninitiated in the long history of linguistic prescriptivism. So in this post I will attempt to explain what I think are his (misguided) rationales for choosing these words to ban. Some of them, like "due to" are old favourites for language mavens. Others, such as 'Disappointment', are a bit harder to guess at

Redundancy 

A few of Rees-Mogg's prohibitions fall into the category of being considered by some to be 'redundant'. This category usually includes gripes about things like 'ATM machine' 'pin number' and 'HIV virus' which have been dubbed RAS syndrome Other writers, Like Bill Bryson in his 'troublesome words' complain about 'each and every', 'reason why' and 'revert back'. The usual complaint is that two words are used when one would suffice. This seems to be the case with the following 

  • Meet with 
probably Rees-Mogg wants just 'meet'. 
  • Ongoing 
Ongoing has been criticised for being redundant, and journo @JohnRentoul has claimed that "Any piece of writing can be improved by deleting the word. The always excellent language log have a post on it in which an editor is overheard saying 'If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing.'


Academic/formal English 

Others fall under what is often called "academic style". This is the idea that writing for academic subjects should be objective and impersonal. Thus, a lot of the words banned here are things which an academic might consider too vague. They include:
  • too many 'I's
Not impersonal enough
  • Got 
Too vague perhaps? I got a new car (did you buy it? did you steal it? did someone give it to you?) 
  • very 
I'm guessing Rees-Mogg would want an exact number or a more substantial word. No doubt he would consider this 'meaningless'. Neville Gwynne, a retired accountant who rose to fame after publishing a book on 'correct grammar' called "Gwynne's Grammarwrites of very "use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves" (a quote he took directly from the awful 'elements of style' by Strunk and White.) As an aside, actual linguist Geoff Pullum describes Gwynne as a "preposterous old fraud" and Oliver Kamm described his grammar as "the worst book I have read on language and perhaps on anything". 

  • Lot 
Pretty much the same as very.


old favourites 

  • due to 

The alleged problem with this phrase can be seen in 'Gwynne's grammar':
Due to. Incorrectly used for “through,” “because of,” or “owing to” in adverbial phrases such as “He lost the first game due to carelessness.” In its correct use, it is related to a particular noun as predicate or as modifier, as in “This invention is due to Edison”; “losses due to preventable fires.”
This is a case of someone claiming 'the whole world is using this word incorrectly except me and the smart folks I know'. Oliver Kamm writes:
"Style guides typically describe due as an adjective. They maintain that it remains an adjective in the phrase due to. It must therefore have a noun or noun-phrase to qualify or complement. In the sentence above, it has none. Instead, due to has been used as a prepositional phrase...If due to as a prepositional phrase offends you, don’t use it. But it’s Standard English"
  • hopefully 
This is a real old chestnut. Hopefully is allegedly wrong because 'very smart' people see phrases like 'Hopefully, I will be able to go' and believe the writer is actually saying, 'I will be able to go in a hopeful manner'. Of course, the contortions they must mentally perform to believe this are as ludicrous as the people who convince themselves upon hearing a double negative that someone might really get confused about the meaning. Kamm states that the criticism are "quite arbitrary" and notes that "the adverb thankfully provokes far less hostility than hopefully when used to modify a clause or sentence (thankfully, the idle columnist has at last submitted his article)."

  • Yourself 

"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;"

Yourself is an odd choice as it singles out only one of the hated reflexive pronouns. In contrast, grammar scold Bill Bryson does not mention yourself but rails against 'myself'. I had started to believe that all of Mogg's rules were coming from one place, namely, Gwynne's Grammar but Gwynne actually uses the word throughout his book saying thing like:

Remember always, when you are writing for anyone other than yourself, that you are giving. Do not, therefore, write to suit yourself; write with your readers constantly at the forefront of your mind. Put yourself in their shoes when you are deciding how to express yourself. (source)
Despite the seeming approval from Gwynne, Kamm notes that this is quite a common peeve. "Sticklers are incensed at the way reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves) are used in constructions that are not reflexive or not intensive". Rees-Mogg has a point that constructions like "you yourself said it" or the ubiquitous restaurant question "and for yourself, sir?" can seem a bit clumsy. But the blanket ban is equally ridiculous.

Ask yourself Jacob, Could you live with yourself if Kipling's 'if' was banned? 

  • Commas and spaces 
As well as the word list there are items insisting on double spacing after full-stops and a ban on comma use after the word 'and' (not before, as in the Oxford Comma as many are mistakenly reporting) which is also entirely arbitrary. Regarding the two spaces after the period, copy editor Benjamin Dreyer gives this advice.

Q. Two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence, right?A. Wrong. I know that back when you were in seventh-grade typing class and pecking away at your Smith Corona Coronet Automatic 12, Mrs. Tegnell taught you to type a double space after a sentence-ending period, but you are no longer in the seventh grade, you are no longer typing on a typewriter, and Mrs. Tegnell is no longer looking over your shoulder (Dreyer)

Though it should be noted that Dreyer also thinks people should try to avoid words like 'very' and 'really' so whether or not you want two spaces after a full stop (not necessary but some people prefer the way it looks) is really up to you.

Harder to guess

The remaining words are a bit harder to guess. If anyone out there has any good ideas as to why he has allegedly taken against these words, please let me know.

  • 'Invest' in schools 
**Update** so this is apparently unacceptable as it is emotive. If someone 'invests' in something then there is an assumption among the listener that there will be some kind of 'return'. It is possible to pointlessly give money to schools (buying class sets of Ipads for example, or spending it on BrainGym training). It seems Rees-Mogg doesn't like the 'settle argument' sense of 'invest' in schools. 
  • unacceptable 
  • equal 
  • Speculate 
  • No longer fit for purpose -Possibly considered a cliche
  • I am please to learn 
  • Ascertain 
  • Disappointment 
  • I note/ understand your concerns 


Some have claimed the list is all a ruse to make the public focus on the wrong things but as with claims of Trump's cunning media strategy, I am sceptical. It would not surprise me at all to learn Rees-Mogg really does believe in the correctness of his pronouncements on language. I was more surprised to see what was missing from the list. No mention of split infinitives, 'disinterested' or 'literally'. 

Like all pedants and grammar scolds, Rees-Mogg apparently breaks his own rules. (though this does seem to be in speech and not in writing). And like all pedants, he seems not to care if these rules make any kind of sense, as long as people are forced to follow them. Recently, Rees-Mogg authored a book about Victorians despite not being a historian. Reviewers were not kind, and it seems to me that the criticism of the book as "staggeringly silly" and "mind‑bogglingly banal" could equally apply to his ideas about good grammar use. 







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