Two cheers for Alan Duncan, grammar fascist

Benito Mussolini
This is not Alan Duncan, for the record

Alan Duncan, the Minister of State for International Development, has become perhaps the first Conservative minister in history to describe himself as a fascist, rather than waiting for someone on Twitter to do it for him.

Specifically, “Lofty”, as he is known, has awarded himself the title of Grammar Fascist, in a memo to staff at the Department for International Development in which he warned that using “language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand” damages Britain’s reputation. He wants to ban jargon like “going forward” (“loose and meaningless”, he rightly calls it); furthermore, “we do not ever ‘access’, ‘catalyse’, ‘showcase’ or ‘impact’ anything”, and 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’.”

Similarly, “It irks when nouns are used as verbs, apostrophes are left off (or misplaced), compound adjectives (such as UN-led) are not hyphenated, and sentences are begun with ‘But’ or ‘However’.” Read Chris Hope’s story on the subject for the full text.

Of course, it’s a fine and noble thing that Mr Duncan is trying to do: on the Today Programme this morning, John Humphrys called for him to be given a peerage. But, unusually for a fascist, Mr Duncan has allowed his terrorised subjects the right of reply. The memo ends: “Disclaimer: [Lofty] is always willing to be challenged about his judgement on grammatical standards and will not take offence at a properly reasoned opinion.” I hope that my honourable friend will not mind me challenging him in that spirit.

Access and impact, sad though it is to admit, are now perfectly acceptable verbs. “Nouns being used as verbs” in general is such a common practice that there’s even a term for it, “verbing” (it is, pleasingly, also the finest example of its own definition). But the point I really want to address is this: starting sentences with conjunctions such as “but” or “however” is completely fine, and has been used for literally centuries. There are a solid 1,558 examples of sentences beginning with “But” in the King James Bible alone, and a further 12,846 starting with “And”. (“Does God want you to use more initial conjunctions?”, asks Language Log, cheekily.)

The “however” rule is particularly odd. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, rules against the form “However, birds can fly”, prescribing instead “Birds, however, can fly”. There seems to be no reason for this, and even when he was writing in the early 20th century it was a false rule: Language Log points to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, roughly contemporary works which regularly use the “However…” form. It seems, like the injunction against using “Hopefully” to modify a sentence, or not ending a sentence on a preposition, to be an arbitrary convention created by self-appointed language guardians.

But what Mr Duncan is doing is creating a style guide for DFID, not prescribing correct English for the nation. The department is his fiefdom, and he may impose whatever arbitrary rules he wishes. In fact, to create a unified style for DFID, he has to. I notice he spells “judgement” thus, while we spell it “judgment”. Neither is more right than the other, but if you want everyone in your organisation to write in the same way, then you have to pick one, arbitrarily. It’s a matter of taste. And if he finds sentence-initial conjunctions ugly, then he is within his rights to ban them from DFID communications.

If I were to offer my advice to Mr Duncan, though, it would be to pick his battles more carefully. He is absolutely right to push for clarity in language, and jargon like “going forward”, “leverage” and “catalyse” (except when referring to chemical reactions) obscures rather than clarifies. Similarly, as he says, “when conjunctions such as ‘which’ or ‘that’ are inexplicably dropped in a way which ruins the flow and logic of a sentence”, the meaning is harder to follow. Mr Duncan is making a commonsense point: use simple language, and make sure it reads naturally and unambiguously. [Edit: as Allan Massie has pointed out to me via email, however, he is very much wrong to describe “which” as a conjunction, rather than a relative pronoun. Embarrassing for him, and for me not for spotting it: an example of Muphry’s Law in action.]

But starting a sentence with “But” or saying “However, birds can fly” is no less clear than the alternative, and is often much more natural-sounding. So two cheers for Mr Duncan, but for the moment, while he tilts at the but-however windmills, I cannot support Mr Humphrys’ call for a peerage. A knighthood, perhaps?


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