British civil servants told to write proper English

The British Department for Transport has produced a guide that lists grammatical no-no’s for officials, according to newspaper reports. The instructions detail linguistic errors in official documents that annoy Justine Greening, the recently appointed Transport Secretary. I do welcome this initiative!

The guide, leaked to The Mail on Sunday and also reported by The Daily Telegraph this week, tells civil servants to mind their grammar when they write letters. Among other things, it says: “Do not put in too many adverbs. For example avoid phrases like ‘strongly opposed’ and just say ‘opposed’.”

I agree with this advice because you’ll save a word and the adverb isn’t always necessary. You are either opposed to something or not.

It’s the same with a word such as “very”.

Let’s say a vendor writes that this software is safe. That’s fine. I am convinced it’s safe. But I’ll get worried if the advertisement says that this software is very safe. The message has been diluted. The software is either safe or not, so maybe it isn’t safe then. Don’t rob your writing of conviction by adding unnecessary amplifying words.

Here’s another one from the Department for Transport: “Avoid passive construction at the start of sentences eg ‘It is essential to note that’.”

That’s good advice because not only does a passive construction often demonstrate poor style, it’s a sneaky way for the writer to escape responsibility for a decision.

Compare: It was decided to shut down the project with We decided to shut down the project.

The guide also says that for correspondence, letters should be kept to under a page where possible.

Oops. I’d better stop here.

I welcome your comments.

Rolf Soderlind


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