Blogspot: Jacob Rees-Mogg's banned English words and phrases


Written by Roger Hartopp and adapted from various articles, including the BBC website at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49137619f, written by Katie Wright 27 July 2019, sourced 29 July 2019

 

Warmer: Do you know who is Jacob Rees-Mogg? At work, is there a certain style of writing - a register - that you have to follow when writing to people? Are you a person who finds any modern language usage an annoyance and would like to see more 'archaic' language back in fashion?

Jacob-Rees Mogg, Leader of the UK House of Commons, was accused of being disrespectful to parliament for reclining across the seats in the chamber on Tuesday, 3 September 2019. He was doing this while MPs debated taking control of business away from the government.

Picture: Copyright BBC

Dear Mr. Rees-Mogg, M.P. person.

Due to your ongoing attitude towards the English language which many of us find unacceptable, I am not pleased to learn that you have gone the extra kilometre and told your staff that it is not to invest a lot of their time on certain words and phrases, and that the use of these words are no longer fit for purpose.This is very disappointing.

I have ascertained from the press that you think of yourself as being very clever, and this has met with a lot of anger from many of us, particularly linguists. The disappointment is clear after we've learnt you are, basically, trying to consciously show to us that we're not equal to you when it comes to expressing the English language.

I would like to point out to you that the English language always has been developing, and is continually to do so, and inevitably will in the future. It is folly to believe otherwise.

The Victorian era disappeared years ago, so I hope you will note my concerns on this matter and hopefully consult a linguist. End of.

And I'm not going to check my work to see if I did any grammatical errors, speling mistales or leaving any out. By the way, that previous sentence was a joke.

PS If staff is a single organisation, then by your rules, 'it' not 'they' is correct.

Yours,

Roger Hartopp

Anything wrong with the above letter? Well, if it ends up in Jacob Rees-Mogg's in-tray, I think he would have a fit about it.

Unless you've really had absolutely no interest in world affairs, even the latest developments in Brexit will have certainly had your attention in the world press. 

However, I'm not here to talk about Brexit (this site tries its best not to take a political stance), but rather a particular individual the new UK Prime Minister (Boris Johnson. he's had enough attention as it is) has appointed to his cabinet. A Prime Minister that was elected by just over 100,000 party members, or less than 0.1 per cent of the population of the country. (Damn, I've got political.) And as this site is mainly about the English language, it is that topic we're sticking with, not politics. If we can...

As a warm-up, you might want to read this on this site as I've dealt with something very similar in the past, but if you can't be bothered to read it, it referenced Michael Gove, a British politician who, back in 2013, complained about the standard of English being used in his department in the form of memos, and so came up with a set of rules called ‘Gove’s Golden Rules’ about the use of written English. His favourite pet hate was the use of passives.

Well, Jacob Rees-Mogg looks to have gone one (or many times) better.

As I write this, Rees-Mogg began his new role as the leader of the House of Commons by bringing out his own style guide - which he produced many years ago with his own staff in his constituency (an area of the country that he serves as a Member of Parliament) to all members in his new office. He's apparently banned a lot of words and phrases, forbidden the use of metric measurements, and all non-titled males should be known as 'esquire': for example, Roger Hartopp Esq. Now this is a very outmoded form of address, in that it technically designates a man who is below the rank of a knight. There is no female equivalent.

ITV news has managed to get hold of these rules (see above). For example, his staff are not allowed to use words such as 'very', so any jobs done have to be good or excellent, and not 'very good'. Then there's 'lot' (and here, I presume he means more than enough, and probably prefers 'considerable'), and 'got' (which is covered in considerable detail here on my site). Here are the others, and my comments that follow them:

due to - meaning 'the reason for'. This can be used both written and spoken, but perhaps best avoided if written formally. But grammar pedants say, you must use “because of”, even though because of and due to are used interchangeably by the vast majority of native speakers of English.

ongoing - continuing. No reason not to use this as far as I'm aware.

hopefully - as in 'We're hopefully going to do this'. Clearly Mr Rees-Mogg sees no hope in life - it's black or white, no shades of grey, thank you very much.

unacceptable - something that is, well, not good. So... do I say 'not acceptable' or what?

equal - same as. So what do I say instead of 'equal rights'? Identical, the same, matched, matching? No no no... It's been suggested that Rees-Mogg sees 'equal' as a word regularly found in various politically correct catchphrases, like equal opportunities, equal rights or (probably what he complains about) equal marriage.

too many "I"s - not the phrase, but Rees-Mogg doesn't like the idea of the first person pronoun in your letters. I don't agree.

yourself - this is perfect standard written English!

 

speculate - so does that mean I can say 'guess' instead?

invest (in schools etc) - put money in (to schools, etc)? But isn't that what the financial market does plenty of? Or is it to do with usages that are not connected with money (I've invested a lot of time into this project)?

 

the use of - as in 'the use of words I've decided are banned and cannot be used'

 

no longer fit for purpose - well, that's that then. It's a phrase no longer fit for purpose.

 

I am pleased to learn - presumably Rees-Mogg doesn't like the idea of learning something unless it is backed with hard evidence of the thing you're pleased to learn about. Or maybe you should be dismayed to learn...

 

meet with - quote from TEE: To say I’m going to meet with my friends is incorrect as far as British English is concerned (but not in American English), but you can use meet with in these contexts: The decision to make many staff redundant will meet

with a lot of anger at the company (here, encounter, lead to); The people rescued from the boat have been met with plenty of

kindness and support (experienced, received); The minister is going to meet with the banks later today to discuss the economic situation (to join some kind of conference, discussion or instruction). Probably not Rees-Mogg.

 

ascertain - a verb that means to find out what something is, especially by making a deliberate effort to do so. Since we can't use learn, we're left with discover, determine, or just find out. And it's a formal word...

 

disappointment - meaning 'not as good as you hoped'. Oh damn, I used hope. Hopefully he doesn't mind the verb...

I note/understand your concerns - I have read and absorbed what you have said/written. That's probably what he wants you to write...?

Rees-Mogg also likes a double space after a full-stop (in the typewriter era, that's fine but in the era of word programs, where texts can be set out the same and adjusted just like a normally-printed page of a book? That's just completely unnecessary!) He also says we shouldn't use a comma after 'and'... which most of us don't, anyway. I think he means before 'and', and so we get the 'Oxford Comma' - that is, a comma that is placed before the word 'and'. So we would need to rewrite this example: Jacob Rees-Mogg would like to congratulate his parents, his manager and his secretary. By not putting the comma after manager, it might suggest that Rees-Mogg's parents were his manager and his secretary...

Of course, there's been plenty of reaction on social media. The Labour Party's Chris Bryant says: I confess I like a double space after a full stop. Not bothered about M.P. rather than MP (the one example I agree with) or Esq., as I'm not the son of a knight. I like the Oxford comma. I measure food in kilos. Also Angela Rayner: Who will have the courage to tell JRM that we don't order kids up chimneys these days, Dixon of Dock Green wasn't a real policeman or the Penny Farthing isn't ones choice of bicycle anymore?

 It's Angela Rayner's comments that say it all. Lynne Murphy, professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, says Mr Rees-Mogg's style guide does not necessarily relate to grammatical rules or other language rules, but seems more aimed "at preserving his antique vibe". What she means is that Jacob Rees-Mogg is known for his formal dress and love of tradition, and by distinguishing male MPs by status using "Esq" and telling staff to use imperial measurements, says Professor Murphy, is more of "a comment about his political position on societal change rather than about language". 

Imperial measurements began being phased out in the UK in the 1960s. We buy petrol in litres and food is grammes and kilogrammes. The only imperial measurements commonly used today are lengths (feet, inches, miles). I don't even have a clue what 'stones' are anymore as regards weight, and I'm not even sure myself if, say, weighing two hundred pounds is over or underweight. In other words, Jacob Rees-Mogg was born into an affluent family, probably went to a stuffy school, is an exceptionally old-fashioned individual, and his world is still viewed with the eyes of an individual still living in the twentieth century. Early part of, most likely. And he's trying to foist these values onto those people who work for him.

Professor Murphy compares trying to ban the word "got" as "like trying to ban sneezing", as it is in the top 10 most common verbs in English and is indispensable to many expressions; it seems this is something Mr Rees-Mogg discovered for himself on Wednesday as he made his despatch box debut in the House of Commons. In one exchange, he said: "Mr Speaker, we have got perambulators (a formal word for 'pram' which nobody says!) and nannies into this session, which I think must be a first for questions to the Leader of the House." Indeed, according to the Guardian newspaper, the official transcript of parliamentary proceedings, Hansard, recorded more than 700 instances of Mr Rees-Mogg using one or other of his banned words or phrases.

While I'm mentioning newspapers, I've written before about the fact that the print media tends to follow the line that the English language is in decline. Charles Moore, writing for the Daily Telegraph, says that 'Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a fine case for the revival of the archaic', adding that 'I welcome Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide for his staff in his new post of Leader of the House of Commons.' (By the way, Rees-Mogg is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph.) 

I'm assuming, however, that Rees-Mogg is referring more to written text rather than spoken, but even so, a lot of the words and phrases he is trying to proscribe seem totally unnecessary, and surely marks him out as a grammar pedant to rival even the likes of Simon Heffer. Rees-Mogg has also written for the Daily Telegraph, and it was this paper that decided to run a grammar quiz put together by arch-pedant Nevile Martin Gwynne with the question:

Which is correct:  

  •  Do you see who I see?

  •  Do you see whom I see?

According to Gwynne and the DT, it's the second option. No it's not, because nobody would actually say the second option unless they're overly pompous.

Professor Murphy adds: "The words and phrases [Rees-Mogg] banned look to be a combination of the kinds of things teachers might have given him a hard time for in school (complaining about "got" was more fashionable in the mid-20th Century than recently) and expressions he feels are overused or imprecise."

So it appears that Rees-Mogg is introducing his own 'style guide' on his house of commons staff - that is, he is introducing a set of his own linguistic standards that his staff must follow. I would argue that these are preferences, a list of rules similar to those that are often put together by newspaper and magazine publishers that they would like their writers to follow. Style guides are, in many cases, meant to be well-intended, but they often include sets of rules that are just simply preferences and can often affect a writer's style. Now there's nothing wrong with expressing preferences - the impression you shouldn't be giving is that this is the only 'correct' way of doing things.

Professor Murphy is not a fan of style guides. She says: "Those who really love language enjoy its creative use, rather than trying to stifle it."

In an interesting article by David Shariatmadari for the Guardian, some work has been done on the personality traits of people who get irritated by what they perceive to be grammatical errors, and that they score highly on 'measures of conscientiousness' - that they '...have strong industriousness, impulse control, dutifulness, sense of organisation, adherence to norms and rules and a preference for order and dependability.' It also appears to match the profile of the so-called authoritarian personality type that was most likely to vote Brexit and features “a strong desire for order, obedience, conformity”.

Speaking on LBC radio, Rees-Mogg said: 

“These are for my letters. This list was drawn up by my staff. And when you read through a letter you see something that says ‘it was very important’, but, probably not actually, it’s probably just important. “‘Unacceptable’ is a dreadful, weasel word. Such an ugly word. It is used when people mean ‘wrong’ but they don’t have the courage to say so. The use of the words is to hide meaning rather than to elucidate meaning, and, therefore you should use words that elucidate meaning.”

(By the way, 'elucidate' means to make something clear and easy to understand. A 'weasel word' is a word, phrase or remark that is deliberately ambiguous or misleading. Weasel words create some kind of idea that something specific or meaningful has been expressed, but in reality it is only vague and could be interpreted in more than one way.)

 

So my advice? Ignore him as he is simply being overly pompous. His recommendations are unacceptable in Standard English. What he's really trying to do is to show you that he's boss, and heaven help you if you contradict him. Do not follow his 'recommendations' at work as these are purely his personal preferences, possibly as a result of a strict school education that included very proscriptive teaching of English. Certainly don't follow these if you're speaking if you want to talk naturally - after all, Rees-Mogg doesn't either! In writing, the way you express yourself, the register, depends on who you're writing to and the formality of what you're writing. You write using your own voice, not somebody else's.

 

So while some of what he says may be regarded as common sense, particularly in formal writing, generally Jacob Rees-Mogg is seemingly dreaming of a past where you were given a punishment if you ever dared to deliberately split the infinitive. Or even if you didn't mean to, you still had to write 100 times 'I will not split the infinitive'...

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