Status anxiety

In defence of Michael Gove’s grammar guide

If I had people replying to letters over my signature, I’d give them a style book the size of a telephone directory

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Nick Harman

    I wonder where he stands on beginning an answer to a question or query with ‘So..’

    It seems to be happening all over

    • Volumnius

      Irritating, like ‘the thing is is…’, but harmless because it doesn’t affect the meaning or create ambiguity. It’s an ellipse, isn’t it? ‘Thank you for asking that question. I understand it and I can answer it, so here goes’.

      • Nick Harman

        Yes but I am finding more and more people now initiate conversations with so. i.e

        Dear Nick,

        So I am reaching out today….

        Reaching out is another thing I find irritating. Perhaps I am just getting old.

        The use of Look, to begin an answer to a question was one of Blair’s little tricks to imply the question was facile, same as Foot’s little laugh.

        • Barakzai

          Harold Wilson’s habitual fiddling with his pipe while saying nowt as he framed his responses was certainly preferable to the contemporary inanities . .

          • Nick Harman

            And probably genuine and not a trained technique

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          So Michael Gove is still a twat.

          • Nick Harman

            That’s okay innit, cos you be using So to continue a chat not kick one off, seen?

  • The Bogle

    In most case, the modish verb “to impact” can be replaced with “to affect”, which will sound less dramatic.

    • LondonStatto

      It would surely better to say what the impact would be.

    • Hidden Hand

      Hogwash. Here’s the rule: ‘Impact’ can be used as a verb with ‘on’ or ‘upon’, but not in place of ‘affect’. It can also be used as a noun, but not in place of ‘effect’.

      According to the date on this article Toby Young wrote it tomorrow.

  • Patrick Amon

    Re the stipulation that we never use the passive where we can use the active, do we really think that

    ‘Kamm singles this out for condemnation in his Times article, apparently unaware that the finest prose stylist of the 20th century first set it out.’

    is more felicitous prose than

    ‘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.’

  • eclair

    Like anything else…Learn the rules first then you can break them, otherwise it really isnt fun.

  • Rob Downes

    Imagine how enraged you’d feel spotting a typo in the first line of a Spectator article, Toby. (The ‘bien-pensantleft’ indeed! Needless hyphenation AND an egregious misspelling!) What fool would put their name to such a thing…oh.

    • Nick Harman

      Imagine how Guardian journos must feel seeing their beautiful arguments ruined by subs every day

  • carl jacobs

    “Impact” is a perfectly fine verb. I’m not really concerned that some fussbudget somewhere would prefer that I use “affect.” Language evolves. Usage evolves. Academics do not exercise dominion over either.

    “Impact” includes the concept of delivering concussive force. “That will impact me” is a stronger statement than “That will affect me.”. The language has thus evolved to allow a more precise communication of outcome. How is that not a good thing?

    • The Bogle

      Judiciously used, the verb “to impact” can be very effective. However, its current overuse will cause it to lose its impact. What, then, will replace it?

      Is a ‘fussbudget’ American English for a ‘fusspot’?

      • carl jacobs

        Evidently “fussbudget” is an American equivalent of “fusspot”. [Insert here all the standard affirmations that “American English” is unnecessarily redundant.]

        I’m not sure what would replace “impact” but I have faith in the adaptability of the English language. Its ability to verbify nouns is one of its inherent strengths. 😉

        • Hidden Hand

          You need ‘on’ or ‘upon’ with ‘impact’ when it is used as a verb.

          “It will impact me”, sounds ridiculous and detracts from any impact you seek to convey.

          • carl jacobs

            In some contexts I would agree. For example, one would be more likely to say “The asteroid will impact on the surface at 1541Z.” However, one would not say “That schedule slip will impact on my budget” – perhaps because the mechanism is indirect. The typical construction in that case would be “That schedule slip will impact my budget.” Your rule is not universally applicable.

          • I have never seen the need to use ‘impact’ as a verb, I very rarely use it as a noun, and generally it’s one of my least favourite words. Now: lixiviation: that’s a good one. Not much use for it, but at least it’s fun. As is flinders, a much more funner word than the ridiculous ‘smithereens’.

    • GraveDave

      hat I use “affect.” Language evolves. Usage evolves. Academics do not exercise dominion over either.

      Tories don’t evolve. They ‘progress’.

      • Language, like anything else, can get worse as well as better. Devolution, not just evolution.

    • “That will impact me” is a stronger statement than “That will affect me.”
      Only because YOU say so. I don’t think it’s stronger: I think it’s uglier.

      • carl jacobs

        “Ugly” is in the eye of the beholder. Although I suspect you mean ” ‘Ugly’ in the sense that a road through a field is ugly compared to the field it displaced” – unless of course you want to get from point A to point B by means of the road. ‘Impact’ is a utilitarian word used for utilitarian purpose.

        Yes, yes. I could get from point A to point B by means of a dirt road that turns to mud with every rain. That would give me the opportunity to slow down and commune with nature – and periodically push the car out of the mud. I think I’ll travel on concrete, thanks.

    • Nick Harman

      I agree with those who find it ugly, for me it’s one of those words that become fashionable in business meetings/memos etc and then eventually die away once everyone is using them and they no longer give the suit wearing drone any cachet.

      • carl jacobs

        it’s one of those words that become fashionable in business meetings/

        I think this comes close to revealing the actual objection. It’s perceived as a word tainted by filthy lucre. The inevitable march of Capitalism paves over the pristine linguistic landscape of the Humanities.

        • Nick Harman

          Oh no this kind of linguistic one upmanship is found in the social worker/local government world a lot more. Use the wrong one, and bang goes your promotion.

          • Basil

            Harman wins. Jacobs loses. Jacobs probably uses “impact” a lot.

          • carl jacobs

            Oh,no. I have been declared the loser. I shall have to console myself with the knowledge that “impact” is a verb now firmly established in the English language.

          • Nick Harman

            I don’t think it is, I think the current use is transient, once it becomes too popular it will start to ‘lose traction’, become ‘unfit for purpose’ and we will be ‘reaching out’ to find something new we can terrorise our colleagues with in meetings.

      • Andrew Diamond

        i.e ,’they lose their impact.’ ?

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    Just the sort of Stalinist micro-management we expect from the hectoring Tories.

  • mctruck

    The use of the passive voice by people in positions of power to describe their actions has always sounded evasive and dishonest to me; if they have done or are planning to do something they should be putting their name to it.

  • Tom Dawkes

    Surely it’s not George Orwell but Sir Ernest Gowers who should be mentioned as the leading light in clear writing. His ‘Complete Plain Words’ was intended expressly as a guide for civil servants in dealing with the public.

  • Gilbert White

    Gove wants to expose reception classes to the grammar and syntax of A Clockwork Orange is all a bit too Ludwig Van to me , why not just show them the movie instead.?

  • Patrick Amon

    ‘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.’

    Young, here, amazingly, appears to be justifying his own prejudice on the grounds that it is widely shared. If we accept this argument, of course, then we must grant that almost all bigotries can be justified.

    • GraveDave

      Why have you posted this twice – with slight change in the last para?
      Why not just amend the original?

      • Patrick Amon

        I did this by mistake. Do you know how, incidentally, I can delete one of them?

        • Click on the one you want to delete. Remove all the text and substitute a dot (one will do). If you don’t take this step first, before clicking on the Delete option to the right of the comment, your text will remain but will merely be attributed to ‘Guest’. In order to delete a comment rather than your identity with it, you must remove the text first.

          • pedestrianblogger

            Better still, he should delete them both as they are both cr@p.

          • I’ll take your word for it, P., as I haven’t read them!

  • Patrick Amon

    ‘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.’

    Young, here, amazingly, appears to be justifying his own prejudice on the grounds that it is widely held.

  • ohforheavensake

    “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.”

    The goddess of irony reads that sentence. Then she packs her bags and goes home; the world has no further need of her.

  • MacGuffin

    Orwell was wrong. The passive voice can be used without any loss of effectiveness.

    • But bureaucrats are addicted to passivity — or conditional speech — in all its forms. I was told once by someone I had written a letter for — worked in a museum — ‘it should be “I would suggest” rather than ‘I suggest’. I disagreed at the time of writing and I disagree now. A young person wrote in to ask what paths he/she should pursue in order to have a career with the museum (or something). What does ‘I WOULD suggest’ suggest? That I would suggest this course of action if you asked me? But the young inquirer did ask, that was the whole reason for our reply! Why be coy and cagey by ‘I would’? It means nothing but a refusal to stand by one’s own words.

      • Perseus Slade

        Using the passive avoids having to say who dunnit.
        So useful for civil servants.
        Nobody gets impacted.

      • MacGuffin

        That is truly a horrific tale of oppressive rhetorical atrocity.

        However, it has nothing to do with the passive voice.

        • Well I don’t have a hair-raising tale about the passive voice, sorry about that.

      • Nick Harman

        The French bless ’em, don’t like being asked ‘can you,,,’ they tend to snottily reply ‘ of course I can, but I may not want to’

  • ‘Impact’ as a verb is an abomination, and not because it’s newfangled (though it is) but because it is ugly, unneeded (what’s wrong with ‘affect’?), and clumsy. It was only this evening that I chided a Speccie writer in the Health section for its use: quelle coincidence!

  • Holenewman

    Gove his an Anal and do’nt rekwire ANALysis frome us plebs! Long liv gramer!

  • Andrew Diamond

    I never cease to enjoy these vicious little spats about grammar, writing style, and linguistic usage that pop up every now and again. One might not often learn much of substance in terms of the matter under debate (although it does happen occasionally, in a small way), but they’re always very revealing about people’s general world view.
    Personally, I take the view that ‘context is everything’.
    What one writes or says, and the way one writes or says it should be governed mostly by the audience one has in mind, their expectations of what is considered the norm, and to what extent one wants to either challenge, or alternatively, reinforce and conform to that norm.
    Presumably one would find oneself wanting to adopt different strategies on different occasions?
    But I do feel Civil Servants should always be striving for a neutral stance, and that therefore the passive is likely to be often appropriate. The fact that it disguises the active agent need not be a problem if one is prepared to counter any contentious “it was [insert verb of choice]-ed” by asking the question “By whom?”.

  • marklu

    No one is outraged . He’s just a dick

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    I thought it was quite funny that Gove’s own output from the DfE which he signed off repeated broke his rules- one document alone had 7 “however”s at the start of a sentence. Then again, I am a member of the bien pensant left.

    But what’s really funny is Gove being steered in this direction by Sir Humphrey in the first place. Classic “keep the minister out of harm’s way” stuff.

    What next? Going to be putting the library books back into to alphabetical order?

    • marklu

      Good point there! You are the only bright spark to raise the likelihood of the mandarins rubbing their hands as long as he is occupied with this rubbish. Govey checks the stylistic content whilst someone else steers the department.

      You can add the signed copy of the Bible to very school to that list of “things for the Minister to be diverted by”.

      Poor old Tobes cannot grasp that his hero has been set up to make an arse of himself over this bill of rights nonsense, ready for Iron Knickers May to ride in and clear up his mess and boost her leadership credentials.

      I can see no way she’d have agreed to him being appointed anyway ( and any Home Secretary as powerful as she must be taken into account wen appointing the JS) if she did not have his pecker in the sights of her meat cleaver. She hates him over Trojan horse.

      • Tubby_Isaacs

        I hadn’t thought of the Bibles like that!
        They blindsided him nicely in the DfE when they got that clause through about penalizing academies like LA schools for expulsions.

        Love to imagine how they sidelined him here.
        “Minister, can I say what a joy it was to read your prose when you were at the DfE? It’s something I think we might improve here. What, you mean you’d like to…?”

  • John boy

    Toby Jones illustrates the weakness of his argument by himself using the word ‘influence’ as a verb. If this word, why not ‘impact’? The practice in English of verbalising nouns has been going on for centuries, and is just one feature of the admirable elasticity and adaptability of our language. All Mr Jones achieves in his ill-considered diatribe is to draw attention to his own dreary small-mindedness and, yes, lack of imagination.

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