British politician Jacob Rees-Mogg garnered a fair few headlines last week—he was appointed Leader of the House of Commons by new prime minister Boris Johnson, and questions arose over whether ‘Mr Rees-Mogg’ is the name of an actual person or a character from the bizarre new Cats trailer. But one headline in particular captured the imaginations of the team at Copylab: “Jacob Rees-Mogg Issues Style Guide to Staff”. It was unusual, to say the least, to see the style guide, that humble editorial prop, popping up in Friday’s Brexit-related newsflow.
We hope it will comfort our clients to know that employees of Copylab are rigorously tested for their editorial know-how before being invited onboard. So JRM’s memo to staff outlining the rules of the written word as decided by “the honourable member for the 18th century” led us to wonder: would Rees-Mogg himself make the grade? Below, we dissect his personal preferences to see how they match up with our rules of the read.
1. Double space after full stops.
No, Jacob. Just no. The double-space rule is an outdated one that harkens back to the days of typewriters. Surprisingly, this rule of Rees-Mogg’s sparked a learning opportunity in my own home: my husband, who generally has a fair eye for the dos and don’ts of writing, was shocked to learn that this is no longer considered ideal and confessed to having always been told to tap-tap at the end of each sentence. “But how?” I asked, aghast. “You’re too young for that!” (Generationally speaking, we’re both old millennials.) His confusion stemmed from primary-school lessons at the dawn of the personal-computer age, when typing guidelines had not yet been adapted for new technology.
Today, however, the double space has been rendered unnecessary: while typewriters allotted the same amount of space to each character, making a written document difficult to read without an obvious cue that a sentence had concluded, the advent of computers and type designers birthed more flexible fonts that allowed for clarity and readability with only a single space. In fact, the new world order of single spaces would become much more essential as copyeditors and graphic designers began to use programmes such as InCopy and InDesign to manoeuvre lumps of text into set column inches or sidebars.
2. Organisations are singular.
We’re with you on this, JRM! A company, technically speaking, is a single legal entity and not a like-minded group of people, despite what your last exercise in teambuilding may have impressed upon you; it is an it, not a they. Particularly in business writing, it’s important to make this distinction: for example, the company you work for experienced a re-rating in its stock price during the second quarter: you didn’t, nor did your colleague in the corner office.
As a financial professional in a past life (read: two weeks ago), Rees-Mogg may be quite the capable investment writer. Besides, in particular cases, the personification of corporations can sound downright scary—just try and tell me “Genzyme utilising recombinant human enzymes in their products” doesn’t sound like sci-fi gone wrong.
3. Use imperial measurements.
As an American, I am totally up for this! God only knows my weight in kilograms. But as a reasonable person living in the UK, even I can admit this is strange. Style guides exist to ensure that a piece of text is as digestible as it can be to the greatest number of people: in other words, you want to be expressing things as clearly as possible to your intended audience. As a member of the British government, JRM is likely to be producing documents for people who are just that: British. And the UK has used the metric system since 1965.
4. Male M.P.s—in the address, they should have Esq. before M.P. (e.g. Tobias Ellwood, Esq., M.P.)
Jacob, you’ve gone on record saying that you use social media and that you find it to be “great fun”. Ergo, we have one thing to say to you: #metoo. Where the ladies at?
5. List of banned words/phrases.
Here’s where it gets tricky. While we might have gone about it differently, we understand the intention behind this particular decree. Lists of banned words and phrases are often produced as a way to combat clichés and invite more varied writing. But it’s hard to get them right.
Take JRM’s proscription of ‘due to’. To give the author his due—if you will—this phrase can cause ambiguities. “We solved the problem due to Sarah’s intervention”—did Sarah cause the problem or provide the solution? Logically, it’s the former (the adjective due modifies the noun problem), but the writer might well have meant the latter.
And there’s a longstanding objection to opening a sentence with Due to as this often results in a species of dangling modifier: “Due to leaves on the track, we have cancelled the train” (we are not due to leaves). But ruling out this wording altogether robs the writer of a phrase that’s perfectly appropriate in certain contexts: “Our progress here is due to the unstinting effort of the whole team.” Baby/bathwater and so on. We also see where JRM is coming from with words like ‘very’ and ‘hopefully’; these can sometimes sound childish or uninspired in a piece of professional writing. My own third-grade teacher banned her students from using the word ‘nice’ when we were only 8.
Which brings us to one final point, already touched on above: it’s often an adherence to editorial rules learned in the classrooms of yore that trip an individual writer up. Writing is an evolving art, and we understand the desire to anchor oneself to the preferences of employees or professors past, lest your work succumb to chaos. But language is ever-changing, and the occasional second look is never wasted time.
And so we implore Mr. Rees-Mogg to take his own advice, so wisely stated upon his entry into the Twitter-verse in the summer of ’17: “Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis” (“the times change, and we change with them”).
Verdict: Further testing required.
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