The new Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has reconfirmed his conservative credentials by issuing a short style manual to his staff.
Mr Rees-Mogg wishes to expunge from office communications hackneyed words and phrases, illiterate punctuation, inappropriate forms of address and sloppy writing in general.
The only regrettable thing about this undertaking is that it should be necessary. Clearly, basic literacy is no longer an entry requirement for jobs in the civil service.
Yet any reader of police reports from, say, the ‘50s will find that even beat constables could then express themselves lucidly and grammatically.
In those antediluvian times, civil servants were expected to be able to use language properly, at times even elegantly. That this is no longer the case isn’t so much a problem as a festering symptom of one: pervasive cultural decay.
However, treatment often starts with symptomatic relief, and instilling linguistic discipline just may improve people’s discipline of thought and perhaps even of character. And that in turn may make them better people both intellectually and morally.
Evil rulers are scared of this possibility, which is why language often finds itself among their first victims, especially the language of official communications. Such rulers want the people to be sufficiently literate to be able to read propaganda effluvia, but not so literate as to develop a discipline of mind.
Not all modern states are evil, but they all have totalitarian tendencies. Hence governments see people who use language with style and rigour as not only superfluous but downright dangerous.
They may be sufficiently trained intellectually to discern that modern politicians are capable of uttering every known rhetorical fallacy in a short speech. How then can such overachievers be expected to vote for such politicians?
This may explain our comprehensive non-education, which is widely believed to have failed in teaching basic literacy. Yet, if we define failure as an inability to achieve the desired result, one is tempted to think that our education is succeeding famously: nothing like mass illiteracy to turn people into a pliable herd obediently voting in a succession of nonentities.
Rhetoric and logic are the latter stages of intellectual development, but grammar and style are the basics without which the latter stages will never be reached. Any intelligent conservative understands this – and is willing to act on this understanding.
Mr Rees-Mogg is a conservative par excellence, which etymologically suggests that he wishes to conserve things worth keeping. Enforcing correct English in his office is a good start.
For example, he insists on using correct forms of address in letters. Thus the names of all non-titled men should be followed by Esq., making me Alexander Boot, Esq. (but not Mr Alexander Boot, Esq. – this is an erroneous overkill).
Mr Rees-Mogg also decries American-style full stops after Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms. [A note to Americans: women have periods; sentences have full stops.] I admire him for this, but my admiration would have become veneration had he banned the ideological usage Ms altogether.
Let’s add parenthetically that teaching TV presenters proper forms of address wouldn’t go amiss either. The other day, for example, a lovely Sky TV girl referred to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness”. It’s Your Majesty, dear.
Organisations, insists Mr Rees-Mogg correctly, are singular. Thus, for example, “the EU is [not are] corrupt through and through”. One could perhaps find a few situations where a plural verb would be preferable, but why bother if one welcomes the general idea?
One rule put forth by Mr Rees-Mogg strikes me as odd: no comma after and. Did he mean before, not after? If not, Mr Rees Mogg must find something wrong with the sentence “The EU is corrupt and, if one were to get to the bottom of it, subversive”, which I don’t.
While we’re on the subject of singular and plural, I’m surprised not to find among his taboos my particular bugbear: the ideologically inspired use of a plural personal pronoun after a singular antecedent, as in “Every EU commissioner is mainly after their personal gain”.
This outrage must have slipped his mind, for otherwise one would have to think the unthinkable, that Mr Rees-Mogg sees nothing wrong with that usage.
Also, if I were him, I’d announce to the staff that using he was sat for he sat or he was seated would be grounds for summary dismissal, but Mr Rees-Mogg must be a kinder man than I am.
His banned words include very, and quite right too: bad writers tend to overdo modifiers in general and intensifiers in particular. That’s showing disrespect for the English language, which boasts the largest vocabulary in the world. It’s almost always possible to find a single word that would obviate the need for intensifiers (for example, ‘distressed’ does the job of ‘very upset’).
Mr Rees-Mogg also dislikes hopefully, but only, one hopes, when it’s misused. Replacing ‘one hopes’ with ‘hopefully’ in the previous sentence would be wrong, but I doubt he’d object to “it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive”.
Proper style manuals run to hundreds of pages, and producing one wasn’t Mr Rees-Mogg’s aim in this exercise. He just wants the letters sent by his office to reflect the personality of its holder: a cultured conservative who knows that sloppy, ignorant language betokens a sloppy mind proud of its ignorance.
Such conservatism flies in the face of our seemingly permissive, but in fact tyrannical, modernity that puts permissiveness to the service of its tyranny. Leftist gurus of linguistic licence, such as Oliver Kamm, will insist that everything people say is right simply because people say it.
The underlying assumption is that everything people think, feel or do is right too, provided they don’t challenge the power of the leftist gurus. Mr Rees-Mogg sees through such knavish tricks and refuses to go along.
It’s good to have a real conservative in government, for once.