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Gove’s rules

June 22, 2015

I read in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday that Michael Gove has circulated a list of style and grammar rules for the civil servants working in his department, abut what they should and shouldn’t write in letters and reports. Impact is not to be used as a verb. I agree with that one, although I don’t mind impact on. He also doesn’t like people using contractions such as doesn’t instead of does not, which seems fair enough in official correspondence, which is designed to sound formal and authoritative. Other rules are general and unexceptionable, for example that writers should sound gracious rather than pompous. Well, duh-ur. (Would any writer deliberately set out to be pompous, except for the purpose of satire?)

However, one rule surprised me. Civil servants must not begin a sentence with “however”. This is not, I’m thankful to say, because Gove takes however to be a conjunction, as all too many do. He knows it is an adverb, and thinks it should be bang next-door to the verb it applies to. So one should not say “However, there are objections to this policy”. One should say “There are, however, objections to this policy”. Gove thinks this rule should apply to other adverbs like yet and also, too.

I have three points to make about this rule. First, I didn’t know it. So I’ve learned something. Second, I’m worried about it as a rule, because I’m afraid it will confuse those people who think however is a conjunction and they’ll start or continue using it as a synonym for but. Third, I don’t really agree with the rule because However as the first word of a sentence sounds natural and is a helpful signpost to the reader. Indeed, as the article in the IoS pointed out, Gove has frequently used However as the first word of a sentence himself, which suggests it’s not an easy or desirable rule to follow. It’s just occurred to me that Gove wouldn’t like my beginning the previous sentence with Indeed, either, but that’s too bad.

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