Is Jacob Rees-Mogg right about writing?

UK Conservative minister Jacob Rees-MoggIt’s not every day that a style guide becomes worldwide news. Word of the guidelines that Jacob Rees-Mogg – the newly appointed leader of the House of Commons – sent to his staff has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post.

We’ve talked before about the benefits of style guides. They’re great tools for creating consistent writing across a department or organisation and for helping to reinforce your company voice. And by setting out an official position on things like spellings, usage and punctuation, they spare us from having to make and remake decisions over and over again. More organisations could do with having one. So by all means, let’s spread the word.

Quirky choices

But much of the coverage has noted the somewhat quirky nature of many of the rules laid down. These include using imperial measurements, adding ‘Esq.’ to the names of non-titled men, not putting a comma after the word ‘and’, and a ban on the word ‘got’.

And the embargoes don’t stop there. The guide lists a veritable pick ‘n’ mix of prohibited words and phrases:

  • very
  • due to
  • ongoing
  • hopefully
  • unacceptable
  • equal
  • overuse of ‘I’
  • yourself
  • lot
  • got
  • speculate
  • invest (in schools etc)
  • no longer fit for purpose
  • I am pleased to learn
  • meet with
  • ascertain
  • disappointment
  • I note/understand your concerns

Some of these are arguably well-chosen: the word ‘very’ (like some other adverbs and adjectives) can be overused and doesn’t necessarily add much. Replacing ‘due to’ with a simple ‘because of’ often results in a more natural turn of phrase. And perhaps in outlawing ‘lot’, the hope is to rid correspondence of the less-than-specific ‘a lot’. But this is mere conjecture. We don’t know if the list came with context (as all good style guides should).

Other choices look more arbitrary and like pure personal preference. As for the punctuation laws, we’d disagree about putting two spaces after a full stop. And the rule about putting a comma after ‘and’ looks simply like a mistake. If the intention is to outlaw the Oxford comma, the guide should ban using one before the ‘and’ of the last item in a list.

The guide states that ‘organisations are SINGULAR’ (a perfectly fine style position, though ours isn’t so black-and-white). It also says, ‘There is no . after Miss or Ms’ (is there ever one after ‘Miss’?) and ‘CHECK your work’ (good advice, but no need to shout).

Dated rules

Some of the guidelines may be as much about strengthening the personal brand of the new minister (sometimes referred to as ‘the honourable member for the eighteenth century’) as they are about making communications clearer. While there is some suggestion of good advice in his memo, including edicts that seem to hark back to some mythical golden age of grammar does a lot to undermine it.

The stance on ‘Esquire’ and imperial measurements immediately dates the guidance (the UK’s move to metric began in 1965). Language is constantly changing. So insisting on the use of outmoded terms not only invites resistance but is probably futile.

This isn’t the first time a new boss has imposed his personal take on what makes good writing – even in government. Owen Paterson took issue with the Oxford comma and brackets in his ‘Punctuation Rules’ list at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, shortly after becoming environment secretary way back in 2012.

And Michael Gove issued his own guidelines not once but twice – first in the Department for Education in 2013 and again in 2015, as justice secretary. What began as a fairly reasonable campaign against pompous writing seemingly gathered a few personal bugbears in the intervening two years. The 2015 version saw bans brought in on contractions (such as ‘can’t’ and ‘doesn’t) and ‘However’ at the start of sentences.

Defining style

So what’s the summary here? Well, number one: guidance is good. Style guides are very often necessary – especially where consistency is key and reputations are on the line. And let’s not forget that civil servants are often writing on behalf of the ministers in question. As Toby Young commented about Gove’s second-edition guidelines in the Spectator, ‘If I had people replying to letters over my signature, I’d give them a style book the size of a telephone directory.’

But a style guide shouldn’t be a territory-marking exercise made up of your own handpicked personal peeves and foibles. We’ve all got them, but that doesn’t mean we need to inflict them on other people without good cause.
If you'd like a style guide for your workplace, you can download a copy of ours  here.

Image credit: Ian Davidson Photography / Shutterstock