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

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

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.

 

 

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

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.