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Alan Duncan's "grammar fascism" is good news for us all

Minister of state is "leveraging" ban on "going forward".

Alan Duncan addressing Conservative Party Conference
Alan Duncan addressing Conservative Party Conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

This morning, I find myself experiencing a somewhat unexpected and alien feeling - a warm glow of affection for Alan Duncan, Conservative minister of state for international development. The kind that makes you feel sorry for perhaps having judged someone too quickly in the past, and thus  look upon the whole world with slightly more hopeful eyes.

What could Duncan have done to deserve such approbation, I hear you ask? Simple - he’s ordered all those who work for him at the Department for International Development (DfID) to start talking and writing in a way that other, non-government, people can understand.

Christopher Hope of the Telegraph reports that Duncan has issued a memo to his civil servants “accusing them of damaging Britain’s reputation abroad by using ‘language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand’”.

The minister of state provides a few well-chosen examples:

[He] would prefer that we did not ‘leverage’ or ‘mainstream’ anything, and whereas he is happy for economies to grow, he does not like it when we ‘grow economies’.

Nor is he impressed with the loose and meaningless use of ‘going forward’, either at the beginning or the end of any sentence. Thus we do not ever ‘access’, ‘catalyse’, ‘showcase’ or ‘impact’ anything. Nearly as depressing for him is reading about DFID’s work in ‘the humanitarian space’.

Duncan happily describes himself as a “grammar fascist” in this memo, aware no doubt that there will be a lot of comments in the vein of “stupid bloody pedant” made as he passes people’s desks from now on, especially if the desks’ occupants are engaged in the fifth redrafting of a document, returned to them because they’d left yet another a participle hanging. If it is fascism, though, it’s an unusually collaborative kind - the memo concludes by saying that Duncan is “always willing to be challenged about his judgement on grammatical standards and will not take offence at a properly reasoned opinion.”

In December last year, it emerged that a similar set of guidelines was in place at the Department for Transport. At the time, Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick commented: “You would have thought ministers would be focusing on sorting out the nation's transport system – not micromanaging civil servants to dot their i's and cross their t's.”

I’m sure he’s not alone in thinking that government ministers should and do have better things to do with their time. However, I’m not sure that’s right. Communication, both with each other and with everyone else, is the beginning and end of everything politicians do, and the clearer it is, the better they are at their jobs.

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say the idea that using the kind of jargon and poor constructions Duncan is trying to do away with makes you sound more intelligent or informed is one of the biggest and yet most prevalent fallacies I’ve ever come across. As anyone who has ever really tried to write a clear, simple, meaningful statement knows, it’s a far greater skill to be straightforward than it is to be complicated.

Pedantry purely for pedantry’s sake (enjoyable though it is for the likes of me) is a hobby, not a tool. But that’s not what this is about. In his memo, Duncan states: “All our communication must be immediately explicable to the non-DFID reader. Clear language conveys clear thought. Its poor use suggests sloppy thinking.” If, by tightening up his government’s language, he can tighten up their thinking, I don’t think anyone will have any problems with Duncan’s fascination with grammar any more.

Pedantry, grammar fascism or, as I prefer, good clear writing, has just one goal in mind - that the reader or listener should immediately understand what you are trying to communicate with no distraction or confusion. If Alan Duncan can purge Whitehall of the desire to “leverage”, “go forward” and “catalyse”, he will have done us all a good turn.