Would your mum understand?

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

In the past few months, Education Secretary Michael Gove, a former journalist, has hit the front page with his plans to introduce new grammar and spelling tests in UK schools. Now he is back in the headlines:

Would your mum understand it? Michael Gove bans jargon in education department“, “Gove’s golden rules for writing: can you do better?“.

These headlines announce Gove’s new venture of banning jargon from the department’s correspondence and giving advice on how to write properly by introducing 10 golden rules:

1.   If in doubt, cut it out.
2.   Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
3.   In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
4.   The more the letter reads like a political speech the less good it is as a letter.
5.   Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
6.   Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn  Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
7.   Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
8.   Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
9.   Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining –     companion volume.
10. Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall.


In my opinion some of the rules, in particular rule no. 6, sound a bit far-fetched. Reading Jane Austen and George Orwell will definitely have a positive influence on one’s literacy and education. Yet, Jane Austen’s Emma and a formal letter from the department of education are two completely different text types.
What do you think? Are Michael Gove’s 10 golden rules helpful?

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and currently investigates attitudes towards British English Usage. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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7 Responses to Would your mum understand?

  1. Carmen Ebner says:

    Reblogged this on Proper English Usage and commented:

    Gove’s 10 golden rules on how to write properly.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    As for 8, like other language bloggers, I have taken the frightful Neville Gwynne to pieces.
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2013/04/pedantry-the-telegraph-and-relative-clauses.html

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    In general these rules are bad — vague and subjective. I have also dealt with Simon Heffer.
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2010/09/prescriptive-pedantry.html

  4. Barrie says:

    I wonder if Mr Gove has ever actually read anything by Jane Austen, George Eliot or Evelyn Waugh. Would he like his civil servants to write ‘her’s’ as Jane Austen does, as in ‘It was contrary to every doctrine of her’s’ (‘Sense and Sensibility’). He sounds to me to be the sort of man who doesn’t like ‘they’ to refer to a singular antecedent. It didn’t bother Jane Austen: ‘But everybody has their failing, you know’ (‘Northanger Abbey’ and there are many other examples).

    Does he really mean that he would have them write letters to the public in the style in which George Eliot prefaces ‘Middlemarch’?

    ‘Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve.’

    Evelyn Waugh? So it’s OK to use ‘who’ to refer to inanimate objects: ‘All save the damaged ships who limped down to dry docks at Simonstown’. And OK to omit the relative pronoun when it’s the subject of a relative clause: ‘It was I detained them.’ And no problem with vocabulary like ‘blighter’, ‘tight’, ‘goner’, ‘the blower’ and ‘beastly’. (All from the ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy.)

    • Amazing indeed. Whoever speaks like Jane Austen these days! Btw, the spelling her’s was the editor’s or the typesetter of Sense and Sensibility: she herself always (well, with only a single! exception, in Letter 20) used hers.

  5. Lottie says:

    These rules are very entertaining, and are bound to be torn to pieces by all and sundry. I have read through pages of comments on the linked articles. Such contempt.

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