Last week Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq., M.P. issued a style guide to his staff, proscribing certain words and phrases while enjoining a mixed bag of ‘rules’.
Nutty, or not so much?
The liberal media made hay with this linguistic opener to the ‘silly season’. Thanks to Twitter particularly, every season is now the ‘silly season’; nevertheless, this story gave many bien-pensants the conniptions and the perfect opportunity to spear a Conservative ur-stuffed shirt
There is nothing quirky, c/Conservative or anal about a style guide for staff. Incoming ministers often impose their linguistic tics (Gove, Pompeo). Any serious brand (and Iacobus Reesus-Moggus is decidedly a brand, albeit a retro one) has a style guide to help manipulate how the outside world ‘experiences’ it. Any major media outlet lays down the language law; some even publish their diktats (The Times Style Guide.) Microcosmically, individuals do the same when specifying which gender pronouns you can use to or about them.
If we can get beyond the fake news of JRM having a style guide, the question becomes just how quirky/conservative/Victorian is it? Looked at dispassionately, is it as ridiculous as some commentators have made out?
For economy, I group the points it covers under different headings. Though many are retrograde-cum-nostalgic – and one is plainly near bonkers – a couple are uncontroversial. Several, in contrast, are the kind of fake ‘rules’ (lot, got) that schoolmasters have passed down over the ages to get their charges to be more imaginative.
But what emerges for me is that lost among the dross there are some useful tips – please, let’s not call them rules – that even the style guides of major newspapers endorse, and also some fatwas on particular words and phrases that many of a conservative bent could well agree with. (Well, anyway, I do, so there.)
A maxed big
Retrograde/Nostalgic: 1. Esq. (My father taught me to put that on letters to gents. If I use it now, I do so only humorously to old friends); 2. double space after full stops. Mmm. Let’s call this legacy spacing from the typewriter age. I have a client of a certain age who uses it consistently.
Uncontroversial: No full stop after Miss or Ms, but this applies only to British English. (And our Jacob’s rules have ‘M.P.’ with stops, which is old-fashioned.)
Puzzling/pointless: 1. No comma after ‘and’. This cannot be a ‘rule’ because it would forbid this next subordinate clause and, if I may say so, is confusing. One interpretation is that the Oxford or serial comma is meant.
2. ‘Organisations are singular’: e.g. ‘The BBC has learned’. This is a pretty firm rule in US English; in British English it is normal to use singular or plural according to whether the focus is on the group or its members.
3. got: presumably as in I’ve got, which would have to be replaced by I have. If eliminated totally, somewhat prissy: I have no time for such niceties.
4. lot: if replaced by much, many, very much, etc., will make the tone more formal, fair enough.
5. speculate: which meaning? If you have to ‘speculate to accumulate’ financially, Rees-Mogg is quite an expert.
Useful: 1. CHECK your work.
Gentle reader, give yourself a pat on the back if you have never sent an email posted a tweet, etc. with a tyop in it.
2. Do not use too many ‘Is’. (It can sound childish or self-centred. Many scientific and learned journals eschew it.)
3. ascertain: quite rightly banned. ‘Find out’ and other synonyms do the job without the tang of pettifogging bureaucracy. The Plain English Campaign would surely applaud the ban.
4. I note/understand your concerns: similarly, quite rightly banned. This is the verbal equivalent of giving two-fingers to the complainant.
5. ongoing: often mere padding. If a problem, for example, is not solved, it is by definition ongoing.
Some points merit individual treatment.
Imperial measurements – Helpful for the aged and anyone who learnt about measurements before 1974, me included, but preposterous for anyone under about 50. And try doing scientific research with imperial measurements.
very – Nothing to see here, please move on.
Intensifiers like ‘very’ can be (very) overused. A well-known guide opines ‘Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.’
Ostracising the word entirely is impossible, but excising it rarely does any harm. As the Telegraph Style Guide notes: ‘very – usually redundant’.
meet with – A classic British prejudice against American usage that presupposes that ‘meet with’ is American in origin, which it isn’t. The OED (2001) notes it from around 1300 in the relevant meaning (‘To go to see, come together with (a person) intentionally; to have a meeting with’). However, the OED notes ‘Now chiefly North American.’ If used in British English it may well sound transatlantic to more conservative speakers, but IMHO it also carries a connotation that simple ‘meet’ does not, implying preparation, intention and even, heaven forbid, a measure of informality and friendliness. Moreover, since the revision of the OED entry nearly 20 years ago, things have moved on in British English. Even so, the Grauniad Style Guide thunders ‘You might meet with triumph and disaster, or meet with a bad end, but “meet” should normally suffice if you are just going to meet someone.’
unacceptable – Here I am wholeheartedly at one with the Sage of Somerset. He derides it as ‘New Labour’. Whatever its origin, it has long irked me because it is not only vague but fatally weakened through overuse. It is a disguised passive (‘that cannot be accepted’). Thus, if you say that something is ‘unacceptable’ you are stating that it cannot be accepted by unspecified people. If the person unspecified is you, to use it is cowardice; if other people, it is arrogance, for how can you know what other people accept? It dresses up personal distaste as moral absolute.
hopefully – Yawn. This usage bugbear schleps with it heavy baggage from the 1960s, when the sentence adverbial, for such it is, started to become widespread. It is useful and economical.
In conclusion, what are we to make of this so-called style guide? Principally, I suggest, that ‘style guide’ is a misnomer. ‘Style sheet’, at a pinch. A proper style guide, such as the Telegraph’s or The Chicago Manual of Style, is an extensive document covering a multitude of issues that go well beyond individual words and phrases. Style is the man, and here Rees-Mogg’s recommended writing style is in keeping with his persona of buttoned-up return-to-the-past pseudo-patrician.