27 July, 2019
Jacob Rees-Mogg, old Etonian and new Leader of the House of Commons, has apparently wearied of modern political phrasing and would like to de-smog it. At first glance, the style guide he has emitted may seem out of date and no longer fit for purpose. But in truth, it’s worse than that.
We work with style guide authors around the globe, and we can tell you, this style guide is wrong in substance, wrong in intention, wrong in preparation and wrong in rollout and deployment. Here’s why.
Rees-Mogg’s list of anathemas includes a few perennial editorial targets – he condemns very, which many editors delete very often (though not quite always). There are phrases that he seems to have simply wearied of – due to, ongoing, unacceptable, equal (one may speculate as to why one of Mr. Rees-Mogg’s set dislikes the word equal). But he also rubs a few prescriptivist talismans, such as hopefully and got, that may lead one to suspect that his main concern is that the language be of the “right sort.”
Hopefully is one of the first things seized on by that set of people who enjoy getting irritated at others’ English and fantasizing about a “good old” version of English that they would like to return to (one, we are duty bound to point out, that never actually existed). Like nearly all of the “rules” of this set, it’s arbitrary, inconsistent, and ill-founded. Frankly, sentence adverbs such as frankly and sadly have been a popular, functional part of English for hundreds of years, but, sadly, many people (including Rees-Mogg) have not noticed this. The hatred towards hopefully – and only hopefully – started in the 1960s. And for most people, that hatred is only towards its use as a sentence adverb. Rees-Mogg is outlawing any use of this word, even though it has been used since the early 1600s.
This is not what a style guide should be used for.
Style manuals record the decisions of judgment calls. There’s no need to put “Start each sentence with a capital letter” or “Do not spell exit as eggsit.” Some of Rees-Mogg’s directives are, in fact, the kind of things that belong in style guides: organizations are singular; don’t put a full stop on Ms. But a list of “banned words” is not good style guide practice.
For one thing, it’s terribly un-nuanced. Simply ejecting a word from usage? With no negotiations? There is never a place where equal may be used? In no contexts may you say lot? Even most people who dislike the sentence adverbial use of hopefully will still allow it in places such as “She looked hopefully to parliament but got only disappointment.” Where you do want writers to avoid a certain word entirely, you should tell them what to use instead, and it can be helpful to say why. Without an explanation, a staff member, reading that they are not to use “I note/understand your concerns,” might begin a letter to a constituent with “I neither note nor understand your concerns.”
In some ways, Jacob Rees-Mogg has achieved something that will make him the envy of all style guide authors. He created a style guide that people actually read! He even created one that people will remember (even if it is for the wrong reasons).
However, if you want to change writing habits, you won’t achieve that with a long list of rules that you expect people to memorize. In the 21st century, there’s a better way to enforce a style manual. It’s called software.
Software was not an option available to Rees-Mogg’s pre-modern idols, but now you can simply build the words and advice you want into software like PerfectIt. So if you don’t want people to use words like disappointment or understand your concerns, you add those to the software. It flags them in the same way a spellchecker would and it provides custom advice written by the style guide author. Your staff can focus on delivering quality documents rather than obsessing over style manual choices.
This isn’t new technology that’s unavailable to Rees-Mogg. PerfectIt is used in multiple UK government departments. It’s used across many EU and UN institutions (only some of which the UK is exiting). And it’s used in government agencies around the world, including NASA. Why force staff into 19th century methods of enforcement, when your department has a better solution at its fingertips?
In considering the substance of Rees-Mogg’s style guide, it’s easy to forget a deeper problem with it. That’s the process by which it was created. Releasing a style guide hours into a new job is not how style guides should be produced.
The style guide was drawn up by Rees-Mogg’s constituency team years ago. However, you can’t just take a style guide from one place and impose it on another. A style guide is an accumulation of knowledge, carefully put together by professionals who understand that organization’s writing better than anyone else.
When you work with style guide authors, as we do, you see the amazing style guides that they produce. The best style guides aren’t a list of bugbears and pedantry. In fact, when you reach high levels of expertise, the more you learn about language, the less pedantic you become. Good style guides help inform and improve writing. It’s not a document that you simply erase and start again.
We want to see more energy given to style guides, not less. However, this isn’t the sort of attention that’s good for anyone. Put simply, the style guide isn’t the problem that the UK’s leaders should have their mind on right now.