Thursday, 25 June 2015

Speaking truth unto power...

...ful FOLLY.

Earlier this week, on Woman's Hour, I heard Sarah Vine being interviewed, and towards the end Jane Garvey [showing remarkable self-restraint] revealed that Ms Vine was married to Michael Gove. The interviewer (who no doubt knew that Gove and grammar were in the news) asked 'Does he correct your grammar'. And my hackles rose: what did she mean by correct; what did she mean by grammar? [She didn't use those words, but that was the gist. And that was the 'quote' that I chose to use as a peg to hang my outrage on. (I expect Gove would want me to say 'peg on which I chose to hang my outrage' –  )] I have ranted about this inhuman DISMEMBERMENT of phrasal verbs more than once; I think this is the UrRant.

Later I learnt the background. Gove had done a Churchill.
<digression theme="Doing a Churchill"> 
When Churchill first briefed the newly-set-up War Cabinet, he did something similar (but without so many obvious and trivial and self-evidently ridiculous bees in his bonnet). In a TES Resource that's been viewed well over once a day since I posted it four years ago I used Churchill's memo as input to the Text Analyser provided by As I say in the introduction for that resource: 
This handout looks at a memo written by Churchill to his wartime cabinet on the subject of plain writing. Opposite Churchill's original there is a parody breaking all the rules he mentions (and a few more). On the reverse, there is a textual analysis done by the tool available at, showing the quantifiable effects of using woolly language. This could be a basis for web research into writing skills. 
(In fact the link is to a newer version of the Text Analyser.) 
The parody is not nearly complete. To make the two analyses comparable I wanted to have similar word-counts. (I also got bored.) I begin my introduction to the parody: 
This is a version of Churchill’s memo, using unnecessarily long and obscure words, redundancy,  deadwood…any bad writing practice. Sadly, it wasn’t difficult; bad writing isn’t.
Many a commentator has commented on Mr Gove's FOLLY, notably David Crystal who started thus (on the very morning of the FOLLY, so immediate was his disgust – and I'm choosing my words carefully here: I expect Gove's FOLLY left a bad taste in Crystal‘s mouth; it did in mine. And I expect that's not the last of it. I look forward to Oliver Kamm's reaction in Saturday's The Times.

Here's the beginning of Crystal's piece:

On being a pedant with power'Michael Gove is instructing his civil servants on grammar' said the headline in today's Independent. And Mark Leftly went on to describe how instructions posted on the Ministry of Justice intranet, after Gove was appointed Lord Chancellor last month, warned officials about the kind of English they shouldn't be using. Nicholas Lezard in the Observer made a similar point. His headline read: 'Has Michael Gove dreamed up these grammar rules just for our entertainment?
I'm not going to make much of a contribution to the tsunami of ridicule; my views on  this sort of nonsense are well-known; here's one of my earlier posts on pedantry (and interestingly, the word's  origin). The word cloud on the right will guide you to others.

But one particularly silly nostrum leapt out; I can't conceive of Gove's reasons; is he satirising himself?

 ...the phrases best-placed and high-quality are joined with a dash, very few others are ...

Wha..? Where to begin? I could fight pedantry with pedantry and ask whether he means a hyphen – but that‘s the sort of quibble that springs too easily to the lips of an erstwhile Editorial Assistant.*

Rather than this I went to OneLook:

And I only got it down to 33 by selecting Common Words and Phrases. Without that filter there are well over 1,000. (I gave up after 10 pages.)


Update 2015,06,26.12.45 – Serendipitous PS

Tale from the Word Face

The importance of the hyphen was just underlined for me by an ad that appeared on my screen while I was  looking into the word "well-versed":

On a first reading I imagined a miracle cure  – showers that make the disabled walk. With a heavy heart I diagnosed the missing hyphen.

Update 2015,06,28.11.05 – Added footnote;

* Not to mention the comma splice. Gove seems to inhabit a string of glass houses.

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