Gove’s Rules

In June 2013, while at the Department for Education, stickler for detail the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP provided his staff with a list of ten rules on grammar and clear writing.

Now, in one of his first acts in his new appointment as Lord Chancellor, he has provided staff at the Ministry of Justice with a similar list. The combined twenty rules are listed below. Are these the best twenty rules? Has Gove missed anything crucial? Do we agree with everything he rules?

  1. If in doubt, cut it out.
  2. Read it out loud – if it sounds wrong, don’t send it.
  3. In letters, adjectives add little, adverbs even less.
  4. The more the letter reads like a political speech, the less good it is as a letter.
  5. Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?
  6. Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.
  7. Always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions.
  8. Gwynne’s Grammar is a brief guide to the best writing style.
  9. Simon Heffer’s Strictly English is a more comprehensive – and very entertaining – companion volume.
  10. Our written work should be the clearest, most elegant, and most enjoyable to read of any Whitehall department’s because the Department for Education has the best civil servants in Whitehall.
  11. Don’t write “I am sorry to hear”, but “I am sorry to read” instead.
  12. Don’t 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”.
  13. Don’t use “doesn’t”, “don’t”, “aren’t”, and so on, but spell out both words.
  14. Take a warm tone and be very gracious in thanking people for their letters.
  15. Use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible: eg, “We are doing this”; “My department provides guidance”; “The evidence shows that…”.
  16. Even if the view is an opposing one, acknowledge the arguments while not yielding on the substance.
  17. Avoid “this” and “it” on their own, trying to write exactly what they are referring to in correspondence.
  18. Don’t be repetitive.
  19. Don’t use anything too pompous.
  20. Don’t write that you “met with” someone (just “met”).

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