Media pundits were amused and bemused recently to learn that Jacob Rees-Mogg, currently serving as Leader of the House of Commons, had drawn up a list of banned words to be sent to all civil servants reporting to him. He’s not alone in issuing this kind of decree; Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton – both master communicators – sent memos to all staff emphasising the principles of clear and effective communication.
However, where Clinton and Churchill stressed the broad principles of brevity and clarity, Rees-Mogg’s rules are far more specific: the words ‘unacceptable’, ‘equal’, and ‘speculate’ are deemed …. well… unacceptable and we can only speculate as to the reason why. The list also insists that staff should never put a comma after the word ‘and’. It also demands two spaces after every full stop. Imperial measures are to be used, not metric. Mercifully, the builders carrying out the refurbishment of the Parliament buildings won’t report into his team – they all gave up feet and inches a long time ago.
Some have already argued that the press attention generated by the list has all helped to reinforce Rees-Mogg’s image as old-fashioned and eccentric, but highly principled. If so, it’s probably done its job. The English have a tendency to indulge the upper-class if they play up to the idea of being a bit odd and out of touch.
I’m quite certain, on the other hand, that if I were a member of this politician’s team, I’d be annoyed to receive these stipulations. The main reason is that, as a professional writer and ex-teacher, I have a better grasp of punctuation and grammar than Jacob Rees-Mogg (or Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esquire, as I would be obliged to refer to him if I followed his guide). Here, for example, is a grammatically correct sentence with a comma after ‘and’:
‘He’s attracted a lot of attention and, given his record, it’s no great surprise.’
I could go through each item in the list and give a similar exception to his ‘rule’. But that’s not the main point. The question I would ask is: is this intended to be a list of personal preferences or a list of correct English usage? If it’s a list of preferences, then it’s legitimate, whether I feel the same way or not. What it most certainly isn’t is an objective guide to what is correct.
Does it matter? It can. When training lawyers in the correct use of punctuation and grammar, I’ve often found that they’ve been ‘corrected’ by senior managers for using English in a way that is perfectly in line with educated modern usage. Many of the ‘rules’ that they are supposed to have broken are actually the misconceptions of snobs: split infinitives, for example are, and always have been, fine. This creates confusion and resentment. The trainee lawyers learn slowly and incompletely because they don’t have confidence in what they’re being told.
The crucial point here is that it’s not just about language. Leaders might want to decree that things are done in a certain way. But it really helps if they themselves are aware of the difference between what is demonstrably better and what is just their own personal taste. Let’s say I ask my associate to include the $ sign throughout whenever they are giving financial figures. My associate might think that this makes no sense, as all the amounts of money we discuss are always in dollars. If I try to prove or insist to the associate that I’m right, this could cause friction. If, however, I start by saying ‘Look, this is just how I like it…’ then the associate doesn’t have to worry about whether it’s right or wrong; it’s just what the boss wants. Here are some areas where personal preference is the rule, but pointless arguments are often made for the universal superiority of one over another:
- Including comprehensive data and tables on a presentation slide (as opposed to summaries)
- Full and frequent progress reports to the project manager (as opposed to spending more time actually doing the job)
- Asking for promotions and opportunities (as opposed to waiting passively)
- Always being vocal in meetings (as opposed to speaking only when you have something important to say)
- Getting sign-off from senior managers on each decision (as opposed to taking responsibility yourself)
Whenever we delegate work we should make our expectations clear. It’s not helpful to assume that other people should just know how we like things done because it’s a better way. Neither will people find themselves in harmony with our wishes by simply using their common sense. If there is a sound reason for the way we like things to be done, we should give it to people. And when it’s just a matter of personal taste, we should have the self-awareness to realise it, and ask for it as such. Or just drop it, of course.
In one way, Rees-Mogg’s new minions are lucky: he’s been very clear about what he does and doesn’t want so at least they can fall into line. But it’s less fortunate that he himself believes that these edicts come from superior knowledge and taste. They don’t. In my experience, grammar snobs are like wine snobs: stridently ignorant.