The Leader of the House of Commons under the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has been mercilessly mocked in the British media for issuing a ukase about grammar and punctuation for his office. Even the New York Times joined the chorus of giggles.
Mr Rees-Mogg wants his staff to “CHECK your work”, place Esq. after the names of untitled males, and use Imperial measurements rather than metric (ie, miles rather than kilometres).
There are to be no commas after “and” and double spaces are to follow full stops (ie, for American readers, periods). Certain words and phrases are to be avoided: hopefully, due to, ongoing, lot, got, no longer fit for purpose, and very, amongst others.
very sensible stuff – well, most of it — for a generation of public service drones who were suckled on Twitter and cut their teeth on Facebook.
However, an editor for The Guardian hinted that people who harbour grammatical obsessions like this have authoritarian personalities with a “a strong desire for order, obedience, conformity”. An office style sheet comes as no surprise from Mr Rees-Mogg, he wrote. “Hidebound rules are exactly what you’d expect from a man on the rightmost reaches of a rightwing party.”
But grammar, punctuation and usage are important. Not so long ago the editors of The Guardian issued their own ukase in which they ordered journalists to use expressions like “climate emergency” rather than “climate change” and “climate deniers” rather than “climate sceptics”. That is what I would call a strong desire for conformity, not Rees-Mogg’s lucky-dip from The King’s English.
In other words, The Guardian is attempting to change the way readers look at the world by manipulating the words they read. George Orwell had a thing or two to say about this. In his time, committed journalists deprecated the lickspittle jackboots of the Fascist Beast. As he pointed out, deliberately coloured language like this is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Today, committed Guardianistas are inciting panic and desperation rather than class struggle and revolution. But they serve the same master — pure ideology.
And under what masters they toil! As an authority on its amended style sheet, The Guardian's environment editor invokes Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate Jeremiah. She has laid down the law: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?” Game over, guys. The jig is up. QED. Greta the Great has spoken. Look on her Works, ye mighty, and despair!
Rees-Mogg's style sheet, on the other hand, is inspired by the belief that, in Orwell's words, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. However idiosyncratic his memo, its thrust is admirable. His authorities are the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's — old-fashioned, certainly, persnickety, perhaps, but wiser and more consistent than Greta.
On a personal note, I have a dog in this race, or a horse in the hunt or whatever the expression is. I have always been a grammar nerd.
My Year 8 teacher, Sister Margaret Louise, made sure that we knew our grammar. She was an elderly lady with a big heart, a ferocious temper and a passion for grammar. We could wend our way through past and present participles, subjunctive and indicative moods, split infinitives and diagrammed sentences. We had to. There was hell to pay if we didn’t.
One day she had the bright idea of creating a grammar hospital. If one of us stumbled in class conversation, a stool-pigeon was permitted to raise his arm and politely denounce the offence. The transgressor had to write the correct version 50 times. I very quickly became the class champion and the most hated boy in Year 8, a hybrid of teacher’s pet and penitentiary sadist.
The odd thing was that Sister Margaret Louise’s own grammar was not very good. This often happens, I have noticed, with people who fret about split infinitives. One day, with smarmy politeness, I drew the class’s attention to one of her solecisms and suggested that she be confined in the grammar hospital. There was an explosion of alliteration – “you bold, brazen, barefaced, bad, bad, bad boy” – and that very day the grammar hospital closed its doors. This incident is not greatly to my credit, but at least I learned my grammar.
And returning to the British Parliament, it should be noted that the obsession of the greatest Parliamentarian of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill, with correct and effective English usage puts Mr Rees-Mogg to shame.
His counterpart at Harrow School to Sister Margaret Louise drilled into him “the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence — which is a noble thing”. And, he declared in his autobiography, “Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.”
Times have changed. The most painful punishment which Rees-Mogg’s staff are likely to suffer for their comma splices is listening to one of Jeremy Corbyn's speeches, not a whipping. But the point remains. Grammar is important. Grammar rules.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet