The real abuse of language Michael Gove is tackling

For the last couple of days the press has reported on a memo sent out by Michael Gove, Britain’s Lord Chancellor and a senior cabinet minister, instructing his civil servants how to write documents.

The coverage has focused on some of his stylistic orders such as the instruction not to use shortened forms such as “doesn’t” and “don’t” but to spell out the words in full – the full memo is at the end of this blog.

I don’t agree with all his grammatical idiosyncrasies but it is hard to criticise his desire to get civil servants to write with greater clarity.

In particular I noted one instruction which was hardly mentioned in the media coverage. Half way through the memo, Gove tells his bureaucrats to “use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible.”

Gove is highlighting a practice that the public sector – including for example the police, local government and health authorities – and big business are fond of using, particularly when they want to deceive us.

Those of you who read my blog will see the countless examples of this. Organisations use the passive in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.

As I have noted many times before, the bureaucratic instinct is to use phrases like “it was decided” or “agreement was reached” rather than say Mr A decided or Mr A, Ms B and Mr C agreed.

Using the passive enables an organisation to avoid saying who has taken a particular decision and more importantly who might be accountable for a misguided policy or decision.

Gove should perhaps send a personal note to Alison Saunders the director of public prosecutions whose preference for sentences with passive verbs I identified in my blogs on the decision not to prosecute Lord Janner for child abuse.

Of course Saunders, like a significant number of the Lord Chancellor’s department, is a lawyer – a trade whose instinct is always to evade, avoid and deceive on behalf of their clients.

In another blog, I noted that neither they nor the police talk like normal people.

This excessive use of passive infects the whole public sector – but it would be wrong to excuse the private sector. Most recently I wrote about South Railways.

But if you have the energy to trawl through my earlier blogs you will find many other examples.

I will close with a story published in the Sunday Times last weekend – ironically on the very day that the article about Gove was written. This illustrates the scale of the task that Gove faces if he is to persuade bureaucrats to use the active form.

The story is about an 87-year-old man who is going to court to seek the right to kiss his dementia-stricken wife of 67 years when he visits her nursing home.

It would be improper for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of this case. But I did notice the comments of Derby Council, the authority involved in the case.

“Where a person lacks capacity to make a decision for themselves…any decisions made are done in the best interests of the adult following consultation with all parties involved, including family members… Where parties do not agree or the decision is complex, it is necessary for an application to be made to the Court of Protection. We are committed to supporting contact arrangements as set out in the court order.”

Why are so many sentences structured in the passive? This seems totally unnecessary in this case.

But, if I sat in the jury and heard a witness speak in such a convoluted way, I would find it very hard to trust that evidence.

When I started blogging a few months ago, I noted in one of my first blogs how the passive was used by bureaucrats to deceive us.

My view than was that we should “always doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot and be suspicious when sentences have no subject.”

Nothing I have heard or seen since causes me to change that opinion.

Michael Gove’s instructions

In correspondence, civil servants must make sure they have:

* Not written “I am sorry to hear”, but “I am sorry to read” instead.

* Not written “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”.

* Not used “doesn’t”, “don’t”, “aren’t”, and so on, but spelt out both words.

* Taken a warm tone and been very gracious in thanking people for their letters.

* Used the active voice and the present tense as much as possible: eg, “We are doing this”; “My department provides guidance”; “The evidence shows that…”.

* Even if the view is an opposing one, acknowledged the arguments while not yielding on the substance.

* Avoided “this” and “it” on their own, trying to write exactly what they are referring to in correspondence.

* Not been repetitive.

* Not used anything too pompous.

* Not written that they “met with” someone (just “met”).


5 thoughts on “The real abuse of language Michael Gove is tackling

  1. Passive voice. There is no passive tense. Tense and voice are different things. You undermine some good points by getting this wrong.


    1. You are of course correct. And I am fully aware of this, not least from my Latin lessons many years ago and today from my BBC Italian Grammar section 37 paragraph one. I thought that using the word “voice” would confuse more people than it would help – particularly those whose first language is not ENglish. Indeed I have used the word “tense” in this context many times and you are the first to notice!! This may perhaps be a comment on the way grammar is taught.
      I though fail to see how it undermines any of my points in this area – the victims of child abuse who contacted fully understood the deceit I was highlighting, which mattered more to them than grammatical precision.


      1. It was a bad decision. You cast doubt on your grammatical knowledge and thus weaken your argument in some eyes. Oliver Kamm, who now thinks he is some sort of linguistic genius, and his “neo-conservative” cronies are being rude about you on twitter. The passive voice has many legitimate uses, but I share your concern with the overuse and devious use of the passive. You should, I think, refer simply to active and passive, and avoid any mention of tense or voice if you are worried about people understanding you. That’s what I often do when I train people in effective writing and I am aware that they lack deep grammatical knowledge. But, to repeat myself, I do agree with many of your points. You make a good case generally.


      2. I have decided to take your advice and delete tense. As I said, I only used the word because many of my friends are in the Middle East and they did not really understand the use of “voice” but did understand “tense” in this context.
        However, this is clearly distracting attention from my main purpose, which is not with grammar but the way people in power misuse the passive to evade telling the truth.
        I have no objection to the passive, indeed I use it a lot myself. I am less concerned about the extent of its use (though this can be an indicator that the user has something to hide) than when it is used.
        And language is only one of my conerns – if you have the energy to look at some of my other blogs, I am also concerned about the times trade associations are put forward to speak rather than individual company spokesman; and when organisations refuse to appear for interview and issue a statement instead.
        My primary concern is about the abuse of power. I am happy to leave grammar to Kamm, who I must admit I have never heard of before.
        I pretty certain I know which is the greater threat to us.


  2. Thank you for your kind comments. I think he just shows Kamm, who I have never bothered to read, is more concerned with form than substance. I have never said that you should not use the passive – just that it is worth asking questions when its use appears convoluted. All Kamm’s responses show is that he is more concerned about grammar than the victims of paedophiles. I care much more about the responses I have received from victims of abuse who have been very grateful.
    In any case, I have had a lot worse said about me in 40 years as a journalist.


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