Sunday Morning Rant

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2011 by grahamharrowell

In my last post I predicted that Cameron’s Eurohaters would no doubt be celebrating his performance in Brussels by buying some Euros and heading for a French ski resort. How prescient!

Aidan Burley the Cameron hugging MP for Cannock has been pictured at Val Thorens glugging down the Eurobooze but maintaining his Eurosceptic credentials by insulting the locals and, in the company of a chum in Nazi uniform, insulting the Germans too. (Also, by extension, all their victims such as Jews, Gays, the disabled and Roma people.) But then that’s the kind of conduct you’d expect. None of these folk seem to think that it’s in Britain’s interest to favour either good behaviour or spending money in the Scottish ski resorts.

Burley works for Justine Greening at the Transport Ministry. The soaraway Daily Mail tells us that Greening has found it necessary to issue several pages of instructions to her civil servants on the use of the English language and draws a number of inaccurate assumptions from this.
Civil servants in all departments receive a note regarding their ministers “preferences” with tedious regularity every time they get a change of masters. The wishes of the minister are often different from their junior ministers in the same department and staff have to bear this in mind when they produce submissions or draft letters for the minister’s approval. Often it relates to spacing, font and the use (or not) of bullet points or annexes. Like many people ministers think that there are hard and fast rules about English and they impose these on others whenever they get the chance. I seem to remember one immigration minister who banned the word “embarkation” in connection with aircraft because, in her opinion, it was clearly a word which related only to ships. The Mail finds it interesting that ministers should need to issue guidance to civil servants. So do I. I still have my copy (printed in 1954) of Sir Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words. This book was published by HMSO and sets out how the language should be used for official purposes. Greening, we are told, dislikes the use of the word “however” other than at the start of a sentence. Gowers does not agree. I think he knew more about English than she ever will. His only concern is that there appeared to be some convention that “however” was always followed by a comma. He felt that this was unnecessary and that a comma should be used in these circumstances to clarify the meaning of the sentence. A colleague of mine used to say that the strength of English lay in the fact that it is the “Legolanguage”. You can put it together anyway you like in order to get your meaning across. He scorned proscriptive and prescriptive grammarians alike, but readily admitted that he himself had certain personal idiosyncrasies which he clung to, however unreasonable that was.
Changes in civil service recruitment rules some years ago caused the old rule that required applicants for executive grade to have a minimum of 5 O-levels, including maths and English to be swept aside. Not only did this rule prevent those who had obtained their qualifications elsewhere in the EU from becoming UK civil servants but it also excluded those who had migrated to the UK from the Commonwealth, after they had taken their school exams. Of course the law of unintended consequences kicked in and some staff were found to be in need of remedial English courses not only to do their job, but also to enable them to progress on the career ladder.

Departments also signed up to a Plain English policy. All staff were required to attend courses. Although this meant that even the most senior staff were obliged to attend it was clear that those at the top rarely did, or if they attended they just put their heads round the door and were then called away on some pressing matter. Hence whilst everyone else was trying to put out comprehensible communications, the bosses were still churning stuff out in Sir Humphrey speak.

Greening should get her copy of Plain Words of the shelf and draft a letter to Aidan Burley telling him to clear his desk.


One Response to “Sunday Morning Rant”

  1. Hi Graham,

    I remember you telling me about your blog some time ago, and I have finally got around to reading it! You may know from Elly that I have started a PhD in Birmingham. I often think of you and Kevin C as I think you would have a lot to say about my research. I am working in the Railway Research Centre, looking at how badly-written government policy can negatively impact railway projects. I have just been reading about regional Eurostars in the Channel Tunnel Act. They ordered the trains before even looking at economic viability or immigration controls! Anyway, I enjoyed this article on English language – very relevant!

    I hope you and Pauline are well.


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