The UK press reports that former Education Secretary Michael Gove (now Lord Chancellor) has issued Ministerial Correspondence Preferences in which civil servants are offered advice on spelling and grammar.
The following advice was apparently posted on the Ministry of Justice’s intranet according to The Independent:
- Do not write I am sorry to hear, but I am sorry to read.
- Do not write however at the beginning of a sentence (or any words such as therefore, yet, also, although), but put it after the verb: There are, however, many options.
- Do not use doesn’t, don’t, aren’t, and so on, but spell out both words.
- Take a warm tone and be very gracious in thanking people for their letters.
- Use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible: for example We are doing this; My department provides guidance; The evidence shows that….
- Even if the view is an opposing one, acknowledge the arguments while not yielding on the substance.
- Avoid this and it on their own, try to write exactly what they are referring to in correspondence.
- Do not be repetitive.
- Do not use anything too pompous.
- Do not write that they met with someone (just met).
While ministerial correspondence preferences are apparently nothing new, and ministers have the right to have preferences, just as publishers, journals, newspapers, etc. do in their style guides (see e.g. this one for the Guardian and Observer), some of Mr Gove’s advice is rather peculiar.
Let’s take a closer look at the advice about however. Why would an example like the following be in any way objectionable?
- He added that the decision on a deal now lay with Greece’s creditors. However, Greek ministers vowed that the country would not “succumb to blackmail” in their quest to unlock a fresh €7.2bn tranche of rescue funds. (Daily Telegraph, 2/6/2015)
In this passage however is a linking adverb which connects what is asserted in two closely related sentences. This is a very common use. It’s precisely because however is an adverb that it can be moved around:
- Greek ministers, however, vowed that the country would not “succumb to blackmail” in their quest to unlock a fresh €7.2bn tranche of rescue funds.
- Greek ministers vowed, however, that the country would not “succumb to blackmail” in their quest to unlock a fresh €7.2bn tranche of rescue funds.
- Greek ministers vowed that the country would not “succumb to blackmail” in their quest to unlock a fresh €7.2bn tranche of rescue funds, however.
Remember that however is no longer regarded as a connective for reasons explained in an earlier post.
Incidentally, even though however is always an adverb, it is not always a linking adverb. Consider this newspaper headline dating from just before the Scottish Referendum:
However Scotland votes, UK politics has changed permanently. (The Guardian, 17/9/2014)
Here however is a bit like a manner adverb, with the sense ‘in whichever way’.
In the next examples however modifies an adjective and an adverb, respectively:
- No politician, however strong and fearsome, will deter me from doing my job, and taking leadership to speak power to truth. (The Guardian, 11/11/2014)
- And these technologies, however quickly they can be developed, are unlikely to make a significant contribution in time. (Daily Telegraph, 5/6/2008)
What about although? What are we to make of the advice not to use this word at the start of a sentence? In most grammars although is regarded as a subordinating conjunction. These always occur at the start of a clause, so that we can say:
- Although Pete doesn’t like Paris, he went there with a couple of his friends last weekend.
We can’t really place although anywhere else in the same clause:
- *Pete although doesn’t like Paris, he went there with a couple of his friends last weekend.
- *Pete doesn’t although like Paris, he went there with a couple of his friends last weekend.
While some of Gove’s edicts are reasonable enough as expressions of ministerial stylistic preferences, or as a courteous way of corresponding, some of the advice is plainly nonsensical.