Education Secretary Michael Gove has published a 10-point plan for plain English at the education department. Some advice is unsurprising (cut out unnecessary words); others a little more questionable (his list of ‘great writers’ may raise some eyebrows). Here’s his manifesto for effective writing:
- If in doubt, cut it out.
- Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
- In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
- The more the letter reads like a political speech the less good it is as a letter.
- Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
- Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
- Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
- Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
- Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining – companion volume.
- Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall
Mr Gove’s problem is that he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Item five on his list is: “would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?” Yet in outlining his proposals to his department, he declared: “concision is in itself a form of politeness.”
That, for me, fails the mum test. In fact, my mother, who didn’t have the benefit of tertiary education, thought that concision might be something medical.
Sorry, Mr. Gove.
And on your first rule, “if it doubt, cut it out,” perhaps the red pencil should be deployed. How about: “if in doubt, cut!”