Life

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s grammar rules

I have been a professional proofreader for 8 years, so when I heard that Jacob Rees-Mogg had released a list of grammar rules for his staff, I was pretty interested. Discovering whether someone is an en-dash or an em-dash person, or a lover or hater of the serial comma, is the kind of thing that sets this grammar nerd’s heart aflutter. But when I clicked on the article, I saw a list of grammar rules unlike any I’ve ever encountered in my career.

The style sheet

First up, I should just explain a bit of proofreader lingo. In any organisation, publisher, private company or large standalone project, it’s quite normal to have a style sheet. This is a list of preferred grammar and spelling rules which can be applied to make everything consistent within one piece of work, and across all documentation produced by the organisation. What Mr. Rees-Mogg has done is release a style sheet for his staff.

I’ve seen some people worrying that Mr. Rees-Mogg sending out a style sheet is a mark of his Eton-educated elitism, a sign of micro-management of the worst order, but producing a style sheet is actually standard practice across virtually all organisations involved with the publication of written material. In my 8 years, I’ve used style sheets for projects from established publishers like Oxford University Press and Bloomsbury, websites for private companies, online magazines and authors who self-publish on Amazon. Style sheets are incredibly useful. It’s handy to know whether you should be using ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’ verb endings, or writing numbers as figures (10) or spelled out (ten). Having a style sheet helps you to create a consistent voice across an organisation where, inevitably, lots of different people will be producing written work. It gives the organisation a coherent, professional voice, which I would argue is a good thing for a government body.

Mr. Rees-Mogg’s rules

Right, so style sheets aren’t in themselves terrible things. But this is as far as my defence of Mr. Rees-Mogg goes, because I have to say that his is the most bizarre and incoherent style sheet I’ve ever encountered in my professional life. Since there’s so much discussion going on about Mr. Rees-Mogg’s rules, I thought I’d give you a proofreader’s perspective.

Part of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style sheet.

The first thing that leaps out at me is that ‘fullstop’ is spelled as one word rather than two (‘full stop’). Perhaps this a correct spelling I’m unfamiliar with, but I have never seen it before, and I can’t find it in my two-volume copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Second, the style sheet specifies that there should be no full stop after ‘Miss’, which is technically correct, but only in the way that the sentence ‘Don’t spell morning as moarninge‘ is correct. You don’t need to specify no full stop after ‘Miss’ because simply nobody does that. Also, it is not specified whether there should be full stops after ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. If I was working on a document for Mr. Rees-Mogg, I would assume that the no-full-stop rule applies to all titles, but in the interest of clarity I would write that on the style sheet.

There are a few useful rules here. I think a general call to ‘check your work’ is a good thing because it can help you to catch silly mistakes, but the formatting of the sentence (bold type and capitals) does sound a tad aggressive, and I’d always rather people submitted work with a few mistakes than spent too much time worrying about getting something wrong. It’s also useful to know whether organisations are singular (‘McDonalds is selling its burgers’) or plural (‘McDonalds are selling their burgers’), and it’s good to have a consistent system of measurement – although the UK did officially go metric in 1965, so the bold type insistence on imperial is quite strange.

The image above is not the entire style sheet, and it’s is quite possible that none of the news outlets are reporting on unsexy things like ‘-ise’/’-ize’ endings, so I’ll just say that I hope the full style sheet does contain rules about those things. As well as ‘-ise’/’-ize’, there are a number of proofreading staples which any style sheet worth its salt should specify:

  • ‘Single quotes’ or “double quotes”
  • Serial comma (one, two, and three) or no serial comma (one, two and three)
  • Punctuation either appears ‘within quote marks,’ or ‘outside quote marks’.
  • Either use spaced en dashes – like this – or unspaced em dashes—like this—to break up a sentence.

Since Mr. Rees-Mogg is clearly so knowledgeable about grammar, I’ll assume he must have included rules about these absolute basics too.

‘Double space after fullstops’ is particularly interesting to me, because the first thing I do when I receive any document – be it a short story from an independent author or an academic textbook from a major publisher – is search the entire document for double spaces and remove them all. I’m not exaggerating – it is literally the first thing I do on any job. Usually there are only a few and they have been put in accidentally, because, as a rule, hardly anybody uses double spaces any more. Now, this is a style choice (i.e. what the client prefers, the client gets), rather than a grammatical one, but I have never had a single client who specifies a double space on their style sheet, and I have only seen it used very rarely (and when I’ve taken the extra spaces out, nobody has batted an eye). The double space is a hangover from the 1800s, when it was standard practice for people using typewriters, but virtually all organisations abandoned it from the 1950s onwards, and a single space after a full stop is now the norm.

‘No comma after ‘and” deserves a special mention for being, for my money, the most bizarre item on the list. I’ve never encountered that rule before. In all the millions of words I’ve proofread I’ve never even stopped to question whether a comma after ‘and’ might be a problem. A common proofreading specification is whether or not to use the serial comma, which is a comma before ‘and’ (or, more specifically, a comma before the third item on a list, so it could appear before ‘or’ as well). But this rule isn’t about serial commas and I’m really baffled as to what the problem with ‘and,’ might be. I can only imagine that something about the sentence ‘The poor also have minds, souls and, of course, rights’ sounds wrong to Mr. Rees-Mogg’s ears.

Now we get onto the rule so good it’s on there twice: ‘all non-titled males – Esq.’ Obviously I’ve never encountered this rule before, but it stands out to me for its glaring omission of anything to do with women. How delightful for the men to have a little flourish on the end of their names, but what do the women get? Perhaps this style sheet’s preference for pre-1960s grammar rules indicates that there simply wasn’t an equivalent for women back when Mr. Rees-Mogg was learning grammar, but it’s 2019 now and we could put that right by inventing our own. Might I suggest using ‘Esq.’ across the board, for men and women? Or perhaps, for women, ‘WW.’ (‘Wonder Woman’), ‘GCS.’ (‘glass ceiling smasher) or ‘EPnk.’ (‘follower of our lord and saviour Emmeline Pankhurst’).

Finally, Mr. Rees-Mogg’s style sheet specifies a list of words that should be avoided by his staff altogether. Once again, I have never come across a list of banned words in any style sheet I’ve ever worked with – the closest equivalent I can think of is a blanket call to remove any sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory or defamatory language, which many major publishers keep an eye out for during the editorial process. However, Mr. Rees-Mogg’s list doesn’t mention potentially offensive or derogatory language, but instead includes things like ‘lot’, ‘got’, ‘yourself’, ‘very’ and ‘ongoing’ – words you might come up with if you had to write a list entitled ‘Innocuous words it would be difficult to remove from common usage’. The banned words list also includes ‘hopefully’, ‘I am pleased to learn’, ‘I understand your concerns’, ‘invest (in schools, etc)’ and ‘equal’, presumably because there won’t be any occasion to say these things under PM Boris Johnson.

The problem with this style sheet

From a proofreading point of view, Mr. Rees-Mogg’s style sheet – or at least the parts of it that have been released and are being reported on – seems incomplete, occasionally redundant and with a tendency towards outdated grammar rules. While it is Mr. Rees-Mogg’s right to create a style sheet for his staff, we must remember what a style sheet is: a useful document designed to create a consistent voice for the organisation, and ultimately make life easier for the people using it. What a style sheet is not is a list of personal grammatical bugbears expressed in a sometimes aggressive tone that could make people fearful about making mistakes.

In some of his rules, Mr. Rees-Mogg seems to be harking back to a previous age – probably to the grammar rules he learned at Eton. This is fine – it’s OK to prefer a double space after a full stop, if that’s your thing. But there is something about this old-fashioned attitude which worries me, because it indicates a refusal to accept that the world might have moved on since the 1960s. One Twitter user said about Mr. Rees-Mogg’s style sheet, “These are exactly the rules of grammar that was [sic] taught at my secretarial college in the 70’s [sic]. It is correct and we have become very sloppy over the years. Time to get back to basics.” But I don’t think this is a useful attitude to have to language (or the world). Things that were, at one time, the industry standard, now are not. Mr. Rees-Mogg is not reviving forgotten but ‘correct’ grammar rules; the publishing world is not ‘wrong’ in what it now deems to be acceptable; grammar and language do change.

Let’s be clear – a style sheet is a collection of choices out of a range of possible, equally correct, choices. Some of those choices are no longer widely accepted because the world has changed. I just hope that Mr. Rees-Mogg and his peers understand that in grammar, as in life, ‘old’ and ‘traditional’ do not necessarily mean ‘correct’.

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