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.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear