What if DfE civil servants followed “Gove’s Golden Rules”?

Janet Downs's picture
“Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot….”

That’s the “most pleasurable” of Gove’s Colden Rules, a memo sent to civil servants listing the Education Secretary’s guide to drafting letters, according to Oliver Kamm, aka The Pedant (The Times 6 July 2013).

The remaining Gove’s Golden Rules, however, received a muted response. There’s a difference between the rules of grammar and stylistic choice, the Pedant reminded readers. And Gove’s recommendation of Gwynne’s Grammar as a “brief guide to the best writing style” is dismissed as promoting a “work of titanic silliness” which has “clogged up the prose of intelligent and articulate people”.

But what if DfE letter writers followed Gove’s advice and wrote in the style of the listed authors. The Draft National Curriculum, say, could be supported by Animal Farm’s Squealer as in this thread.

So, a clerk writing in the style of Waugh might describe Michael Gove’s modus operandi as follows:

“The method of the English Education Secretary is to spot the policies he wants, get them passed – then clear out and leave the rest to Ofsted.” (Scoop)

Another, given the impossible task of supporting the proposed History curriculum, could emulate Jane Austen:

“Real solemn history, young minds must be interested in…The quarrels of barons and kings, with wars or pestilence in every page; the birthdays of our nation; the men all so great and good, and hardly any peasants at all.” (Northanger Abbey)

Finally, the Freedom of Request response revealing Gove’s use of dodgy surveys would sound like this if written in Eliot’s style:

“We have had the gratification of finding several public surveys urged upon us. We found a late tractate by UK TV Gold and a treatise from Premier Inn – using, in fact, terms which it became us to repeat. We discovered historical reasons why young minds had inferior knowledge, and why, according to this intelligence, it makes it seem all the more opportune that a fresh curriculum should be begun, so that youthful minds will find themselves in possession of a rightful knowledge and a body of acceptable facts.” (Middlemarch)

This doesn’t quite match the brevity which Michael Gove wants his scribes to demonstrate.

The Pedant says this:

“…a good writer is a source of pleasure and education, not a template for your own prose.”

Neither should literature be regarded as intellectual one-upmanship – it’s for enjoyment. And the point of grammar is clarity of expression. It’s possible to write clearly without knowing whether “near” in the command “…but don’t sit too near” is a preposition governing the verb “sit”. Neither is it necessary to know whether the names Amanda and Miranda are “the nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported direct from Latin".

But both these examples of pedantry appear in a quiz devised by Nevile Gwynne, author of the Gove-approved guide to grammar. I confess, I only achieved 50%. It’s unlikely, therefore, that I will be employed as a letter-writer for Michael Gove.


Answers to grammar questions (these should give you a head start in the quiz):

1 The word “near” in the command “…don’t sit too near” is an adverb qualifying the verb “sit”.

2 Both.

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