Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
‘Yes, they may be quicker to say, but then cutting your arm off will reduce weight faster and more irreversibly than any diet or exercise.’ (Kingsley Amis on nouns as verbs)
After an excellent post-election break in Bordeaux last week, I arrived back to England just in time to be greeted by the Queen. Across Radio 4’s airwaves, she spoke to me about, ‘Helping working people get on.’ Seriously? ‘Working people’ is bad enough. But, ‘get on’? Get on what? Mightn’t forcing the monarch to speak in this way – and then calling it ‘Her Majesty’s most gracious speech’ – count as treason?
‘Get’ isn’t the most glamorous of words, but that’s not really the problem. ‘Get on’ typifies the transitive-intransitive-sometimes-gerundive-wow-what-even-is-that-word nightmare of modern politico-speak. It’s the whole, ‘Only we can deliver growing the economy!’ thing.
And it’s so constant and unimaginatively repetitive. You can play bingo with one identikit phrase in one identikit speech after another. Fair enough, the Queen didn’t have much choice over her words (although you’d think a supposedly monarchist party might try to avoid pointing this up by leaving such an unmistakable fingerprint on them). But good people often get sucked into the black hole of briefcase verbiage. Think of the way in which all of those admirable politicians broke your heart a little in the run-up to the election, by using the same old ugly words, in the same old automaton way, regardless of which industrial hanger/primary school playground they were speaking from.
I’ve said it before, but we need more Michael Goves. Not only because his school reforms will ensure that the politicians of the future will be able to put together a sentence, but also for examples like this . Of course, it’s much easier for great writers like Boris and him, but more politicians should dare to think outside the cliché box. I can see why they don’t: they’re like the normally normal friend you meet for a drink after work, who makes you silently despair until their chat gradually finishes de-managising. ‘Going forward, shall we segue on to some Pinot Noir?’
It’s contagion. And it’s insecurity. It’s easiest to spot in the people who owe their success to the Peter Principle, or those with relatives in hospital, who hide their growing fear behind the newly learnt vocab of sharps, bloods, obs, stats, and unpronounceably incomprehensible treatment programmes.
Of course, it’s also about branding. Phrases like OLTEP, and – yes, ok – working-or-hardworking families helped to focus the campaign, and win the election. But, even so, why can’t we ensure only to ‘deliver’ bearable ones? If we really need to homogenise our verbal output, then can’t we give MG and BJ extra work as branding-phrase-spoken-writing-policy ministers?
Or maybe all of this is just another reason why I’m not cut out for party politics. It’s the part of me that refuses to ask, ‘Are you going to conference this year?’ What on earth is wrong with definite article (sic)? The music world lost it a while back: it’s sad, but I love the Wigmore Hall much more than I do just Wigmore Hall. That’s why I prefer to go to Cadogan Hall these days…Oh! (And while I’m at it, I do not play piano.)
This heady minefield is much too sprawling to trepan properly here. Which roads have a ‘the’, for instance? Just the cool ones (King’s), or the notorious ones (Falls)?* But – on limited reflection – I think that dropping the ‘the’ relates to security again. It implies briskly confident gangship. I’ll ask colleagues at conference in September, and get back to you. Or rather, I’ll ask Colleagues at Conference…
Speaking (or not) of proper nouns, my favourite CCHQ email moments include: ‘Do you want one of these, Rebecca? Rebecca, get our great, limited edition fridge magnet. I just need to know one thing, Rebecca? Are you in? PS, don’t forget to sign up here, Rebecca.’ I know, I know – it’s because they think I’ll support them more, if they convince me that they’re my friend. But why would I want to be friends with someone who couldn’t stop saying my name?
Whilst we’re on the topic of emails offering exciting stash (stash so exciting, it’ll persuade you to give your life to the party), I just can’t wait for my £22 souvenir post-election T-shirt to arrive! ‘Rebecca, our official Election 2015 T-shirt went on sale on Friday – and already hundreds of supporters have got theirs.’ Classic. What’s that? I didn’t order one? But they’ll all have been got up by now! I only hope this shock doesn’t leave me swaddled in the comfort blanket of the McInerney-style second-person present tense: ‘It’s like, you go into this moment, and you find yourself feeling really bad. And then you have to…’
Of course, writing a column like this will open the floodgates of criticism, and invite the friendly accusations of hypocrisy. Not just, ‘You definitely wrote the phrase ‘hardworking people’ in February!’ But also, ‘Ah, I wasn’t going to mention this, but I noticed you used a comma before a restrictive clause the other week,’ and ‘Don’t you know to not split your infinitives, Rebecca?’ Yes, it’s true: this piece risks making me sound like a pedant. Well, I don’t think I am.
To me, it’s just about getting a point across in a way that makes life easy for your reader or listener, who(m!) you want to come back. This doesn’t mean dumbing down; it means embracing clarity and avoiding indulgent pretence. Grammar helps to fulfil language’s primary purpose: communication. And this is why it’s important to me. I don’t like rules for the sake of it – I’m a libertarian, remember!
I have no problem with using these rules creatively, however – in breaking them to make a point, or deciding for myself which ones are helpful. (This is why I left the dangling preposition at the end of paragraph three. And why I’m perfecting happy to start a sentence with a conjuction.)
As well as being a communication tool, language is also beautiful. Or it can be. And when style is attainable without sacrificing clarity, then why not? My problem is not with the incorrect. It’s with the boring. With uninspired, lacklustre, uncool, pedestrian rubbish. And, surely, it should be for hardworking political speechmakers to lead on delivering best practice within this arena…
*Yes, I could’ve looked up the answer to this on Wikipedia, too.