Well, who’d have thought it? One of the first controversies of the Johnson era hasn’t come from some unfortunate gaffe, but from an issue very close to writers’ and editors’ hearts: style guides. To bring you up to speed, ITV News has revealed that the new Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, has instructed the staff in his department to abide by a style guide that has been largely ridiculed in the outside world.
There’s also a list of banned words, which one can only hope are restricted to certain circumstances, as they contain such taboo words as “Equal”, “Unacceptable”, Got”, “Lot” and “Hopefully”.
That style guide in full
Per the ITV’s reporting, the guide states:
- Organisations are SINGULAR
- All non-titled males – Esq.
- There is no . after Miss or Ms
- M.P.s – no need to write M.P. after their name in body of text
- Male M.P.s (non-privy councillors) – in the address they should have Esq., before M.P. (e.g. Tobias Ellwood, Esq., M.P.)
- Double space after fullstops
- No comma after ‘and’
- CHECK your work
- Use imperial measurements
Where to start …
Social media has focused on the Oxford comma rule, with wags posting the examples of how sentences can go awry if they are left out.
Exhibit A for defenders of the Oxford comma https://t.co/YGoH756nUe
— Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere) July 19, 2019
— Lu Hersey (@LuWrites) July 26, 2019
In the UK we don’t tend to separate the last two items in a list with a comma, as is common in the US:
🇬🇧 There was a dog, a camel, a mouse and a cow
🇺🇸 There was a dog, a camel, a mouse, and a cow
Good writers and editors should be able to spot when one is necessary to avoid ambiguity. You can’t simply rule out every instance of commas after “and”. It’s silly.
This falls into the silly category, too. The rules of a language, such as they are, are determined by its speakers. That might sound odd coming from an editor, but there are things I let pass today that I wouldn’t have 20 years ago because they are now considered standard. “Esquire” has fallen into virtual disuse, and imposing it is Rees-Mogg being, well, Rees-Mogg.
We can all live with that (with caveats).
No dot after Miss or Ms
Yes, this is fine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dot after Miss. I suppose I probably have seen one after Ms, but not very often. The rule goes: you don’t need a dot at the end of an abbreviation if its last letter is also the last letter of the word. So:
- Regent St (Street)
- Dr Foster (Doctor)
- Mr Humphries (Mister)
- etc. (et cetera)
Although the punctuation in M.P. is not actually one of the rules per se, it’s implied by his writing it that way. It’s another oddity really – we’d usually spell it MP. It’s much better as a possessive that way (MP’s is neater than M.P.’s) and also as a plural (M.P.s versus MPs). Those dots age the abbreviation about forty years. You can almost hear the hammering of the typewriter.
Double space after fullstops
CHECK your work
Use imperial measurements
The UK, along with most of the world, adopted metric measurements in the 1970s, and both imperial and metric systems have lived happily alongside each other ever since. Because of our long legacy of imperial use, it makes sense to have road signs in miles and speedometers in miles per hour. We measure TVs, monitors and hard disk drives in inches. It’s all a bit like driving on the left – we may as well keep it because changing over would be a massive headache.
However, imperial measurements aren’t taught in schools any more. The weather report is in °C. We buy foods in grams (apart from quarter pounder burgers and pints of beer). And clothes sizes vary comfortingly from shop to shop.
Unfortunately, a narrative has been allowed to develop that says the EU is trying to impose the metric system on the UK against its will, when the truth is nothing of the sort. The UK willingly changed to metric, stopped halfway and everybody’s happy. The idea that we’re being forced to adopt the metric system can be filed in the same drawer as the bendy bananas and not being able to say Christmas. (If anything, it’s the staff of the Leader of the House who will be having rules thrust upon them. Anyone born after the mid-1960s probably has little understanding of Fahrenheit, gallons, feet, yards, fathoms, furlongs and leagues.)
I’m inclined to think Rees-Mogg is trolling us here, but he could be sincere. Who knows? He is essentially a caricature of the upper-class bumbling twit, a staple of the PG Wodehouse universe, and it’s a caricature he cultivates and enforces at every opportunity – he’s even given to making fun of himself about it. Like Johnson’s carefully ruffled-up hair, it’s part of who he is.
Before Brexit came along, anyone who encountered Rees-Mogg saw him as a comedy act, an eccentric Etonian MP who had stepped out of the 1930s. But since he came out strongly in support of leaving the EU, his political influence has grown. Now he has some power, it hasn’t taken him long to exercise his power in the only way he can: by turning back the calendar.
Whether this latest debacle is part of his cultivated image or a passionately held belief is anyone’s guess. Either way, it’s entirely political, and doesn’t exactly chime with the idea of the UK as being a global trading nation. Anyway, a cynic would recognise this whole story as the classic dead cat strategy.
King of the comma splice
By the way, I’ve noticed over the past few months that JRM is perhaps not best qualified to point out other people’s grammatical and punctuational failings, especially when it comes to the comma splice. Check out this rogue’s gallery.
Whether or not you agree with Rees-Mogg’s politics, you do not have to agree with his style guide. Let English be English.