Michael Gove, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, has given his civil servants some guidance on writing.
I won’t go over all of it, but a few things stand out.
First, some positives. He urges civil servants to take a “warm tone” and be “gracious in thanking people for their letters”, to avoid being repetitive or “too pompous”, and to acknowledge their correspondents’ views and arguments even if not agreeing with them.
This is good. Official letters are often impersonal, stern and even hostile, so this shove from the top is welcome.
He also tells civil servants to avoid using “this” and “it” on their own, instead wanting them “to write exactly what they are referring to”. This can help – sorry, this advice can help – to make writing easier to understand.
But two things I disagree with.
Gove says that “however” should not go at the start of a sentence but after the verb, as in: “There are, however, many options”.
However you look at it, this advice is clumsy and simplistic. As I’ve just shown, the “in whatever way” sense of “however” is fine at the start of a sentence. Gove should have specified that he meant uses of the word to introduce a contrast.
And how you introduce a contrast can depend on what exactly you’re contrasting.
Placing “however” after the verb tends to emphasise the verb; placing it after the subject tends to emphasise the subject; placing it after something else tends to emphasise that. Compare:
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. I can, however, refer you to a colleague of mine in the Home Office who should be able to help.
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. A colleague of mine in the Home Office, however, should be able to help.
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. From next year, however, I will be able to share such information.
In the first example, “can” contrasts with “cannot”. In the second, “A colleague of mine in the Home Office” contrasts with “I”. In the third, “From next year” contrasts with the implicit “now”.
And what about putting “however” at the start of the sentence? In that position, there’s nothing before it for it to emphasise, so maybe that’s the problem. Potentially, a “however” at the start might make it less clear which aspect of what follows is the contrast. But in practice, in context, there’s usually no such problem:
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. However, I can refer you to a colleague of mine in the Home Office who should be able to help.
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. However, a colleague of mine in the Home Office should be able to help.
- I cannot give you details of policing policy. However, from next year, I will be able to share such information.
These are all clear.
I daresay there are cases where an opening “however” might leave the emphasis unclear in a way that gives the reader a jolt. But I can’t actually think of one off the top of my head. Sorry. (A dip into four hefty usage guides also gives me no such examples.)
Two other points in favour of opening with “however”: it tells the reader up front that what’s coming is a contrast with what’s gone before, clearly showing the logic of the passage. And it might improve the flow of the sentence if you don’t interrupt it in the middle with an aside to explain its role in that logic.
Contractions won’t hurt
My second disagreement with Gove is that he tells civil servants not to use contractions such as “doesn’t”, “don’t” and “aren’t”, but instead to spell out the words in full.
On this point, Gove is on the wrong side of history. Compare:
- I’m afraid I can’t answer this question.
- I am afraid I cannot answer this question.
A few decades ago, a business letter containing the first version may well have seemed too breezy and chatty. But nowadays that use of contractions is much more standard, and many people would now find the second version too stuffy and stern.
The formality spectrum has shifted: contractions were once largely confined to the most casual kinds of writing (such as personal letters and dialogue in fiction), but now they are freely used in all but the most formal kinds (such as legal documents and memorial statements).
If you want to take a warm and non-pompous tone, as Gove does, you shouldn’t avoid contractions.
The excellent Gov.uk style guide, put together by people who have taken pains to understand how different types of language come across, recommends using contractions:
Some organisations are reluctant to use them but we’ve never encountered a problem with understanding when testing with users. Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.
This doesn’t mean you should use contractions wherever possible; no writer does that. It just means you can use them freely in writing – as almost everyone does in speech.
Two words of warning, though: “would” and “had” both abbreviate the same way (“I’d”, “you’d” etc.), so if you think there might be a risk of momentary confusion, it may be wise to spell out in full. Likewise for “is” and “has”.
Also, avoid contracting “have” after anything but a pronoun: “should’ve”, “could’ve” etc. do still look very casual and are, as Gov.uk says, much more likely than other contractions to be distracting.