Sunday 21 June 2015

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?'

It would take a book to go through every point. Here is just one example of the bizarre and self-contradictory recommendations being reported.

Recommendation 1
'Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.'

Recommendation 2
The Lord Chancellor has told officials that they must not start a sentence with 'however'.

So, let's take a look...

However, they must obtain food from the outside world somehow. (Orwell, Animal Farm)
However, helped by the smooth words of Squealer, she assumes that she must have been wrong... (Orwell, Animal Farm)

It is her nature to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, Mr. Wickham's account seems to leave no doubt that Mr. Darcy is intentionally unkind. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Mrs. Elton is disappointed. However, she decides not to put off her plans. (Austen, Emma)

Celia, now, plays very prettily, and is always ready to play. However, since Casaubon does not like it, you are all right. (Eliot, Middlemarch)
When I was a girl, I was more admired than if I had been so very pretty. However, she's reason to be grateful... (Eliot, Adam Bede)

Laugh? I should have bust my pants. However, they've fixed things up without that. (Waugh, Scoop)
However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 17 francs a night. (Waugh, Decline and Fall)

However, a problem presented itself at once. (Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger) However, let us not repine. (Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian)

I'll leave you to find examples in Matthew Parris - or, of course, in any modern writer.

Oh, and we mustn''t forget this one - one of several tracked down by the Independent journalist:

However, I was nudged out of my reverie by the reminder that it was indeed possible to send something through the post on Tuesday and be sure it arrived on Wednesday. (Gove, 2008)

It's linguistic hypocrisy. Do as I say, not as I do. It's usually not difficult to show how pedants use the very constructions they condemn, and normally one can quickly see through the hypocrisy and disregard them with impunity. But it's difficult when you're being paid by a pedant with political power. I pity the poor civil servants who have to waste their time (and taxpayers' money) trying to implement such unreal and eccentric prescriptions.


Martin Barry said...

Calling Mr Gove a pedant is unnecessarily kind, it seems to me, since the word has connotations of excessive attention to correctness. I'm not sure we should dignify Mr Gove's nonsense with the suggestion that any of his prescriptivist-poppycock nitpicking is actually correct. He is merely parroting invented half-baked shibboleths. Is there a word for that?

Fran Hill said...

Has he not got much to do, do you think?

DC said...

Martin: I don't know of a decent one.
Fran: Could be.

martin said...

It may interest you to know that it is Henry V that Shakespeare quotes a few words in the Irish language.

Pistol . Yield cur !

French Soldier. Je pense que vous etes le gentilhomme de bonne qualité.

Pistol. Qualtitie ! Calen o custure me ! Art thou a gentleman ? What is thy name ? Discuss

Pistol, like a lot of people when confronted with a language they do not understand decides to talk some foreign mumbo jumbo at the stranger.

Calen o custure me was the name of a song popular in the English court in pre- Shakespearean times, most commentators of Shakespeare had assumed that it was somehow derived from the Italian.
It was Professor Brian Boydell from UCD who discovered that it in fact came from a folk song , popular indeed in the English Court , but which came originally from Waterford in Ireland.
What Pistol was saying was in fact

Cailín óg cois tSuire mé which translates as ;
I am a young girl from the banks of the Suir .
(The Suir being the river which flows through Waterford )

DC said...

I don't know why this comment was sent to this post. It would have been more appropriate to send it to my recent post about Henry V. Suffice to say that the Irish origin of Pistol's words is well recognised in the Shakespeare literature. A version of the song is given in Ross Duffin's Shakespeare's Songbook. In the recent production of Henry V at the Globe, by Ben Crystal's Passion in Practice ensemble, Pistol actually sang it.

KateGladstone said...

Can anyone write Mr. Gove to query the contradictory orders? Does he have an e-mail address?

DC said...

I think it likely that all you would get is a response from a member of his department saying that your point had been noted.