The Dim-Post

January 18, 2014

To tediously bore

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:37 am

Via Andrea Vance at Fairfax:

Here’s a heads-up to staff in Chris Finlayson’s office – he is passionate that they should not sloppily split infinitives, or use Oxford commas.

Ten pages of guidelines have emerged, setting out the language the culture minister expects officials to use in correspondence and briefing papers.

It is accompanied by speech-writing instructions, with a list of more than 20 banned expressions.

Some people care about grammar and syntax because they love language and care about clarity of expression. Others are pedantic bores who derive some sad but creepy pleasure out of running around lecturing everyone on how they’re allowed to write and speak. Getting upset about split infinitives is a flashing warning sign that you’re in the second group. Here’s David Foster-Wallace on language and grammar nerds or, as he terms them, SNOOTS, and the split infinitive.

This is probably the place for your SNOOT reviewer openly to concede that a certain number of traditional prescriptive rules really are stupid and that people who insist on them (like the legendary assistant to PM. Margaret Thatcher who refused to read any memo with a split infinitive in it, or the jr.-high teacher I had who automatically graded you down if you started a sentence with Hopefully) are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong. The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language. Latin infinitives consist of one word and are impossible to as it were split, and the earliest English Prescriptivists — so enthralled with Latin that their English usage guides were actually written in Latin — decided that English infinitives shouldn’t be split either.

Also telling: Thatcher fan-boy Finlayson has added the word ‘community’ to his list of banned terms.


  1. I was going to agree with you until you godwinned the post with the thatcher thing.

    Comment by tricky dicky — January 18, 2014 @ 7:58 am

  2. The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language.

    Chris Finlayson reads/speaks latin, so insofar as anyone has an excuse to care about this sort of thing, he does.

    I learned the “split infinitive rule” by doing the opposite of what feels “normal” when writing.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — January 18, 2014 @ 8:15 am

  3. It’s a pity, because Finlayson would have a very good point if he wasn’t a SNOOT. If you’re an official in the public service, you should be able to write a coherent sentence that doesn’t make literate people groan and want to slap you for its shit grammar and misused words. It’s a basic skill that, inexplicably, seems to have become surplus to requirements among people who write for a living.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — January 18, 2014 @ 8:55 am

  4. I wonder if Parata will get a copy.

    Comment by DV — January 18, 2014 @ 9:04 am

  5. He wants everything CENTRE JUSTIFIED? What in all good fuck?

    I also love that this takes four sentences: “Avoid waffle at all costs. Get to the point quickly. State the point. Move on.”

    Comment by garygoodguy — January 18, 2014 @ 9:20 am

  6. Also “I have always preferred the understatement… it’s my own little jihad”


    Comment by garygoodguy — January 18, 2014 @ 9:23 am

  7. To be fair to Finalyson he is a bog standard Statist and Statists do emotion so well.

    Comment by Simon — January 18, 2014 @ 9:54 am

  8. You’re weird, Simon.

    Comment by Judge Holden — January 18, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  9. As one of his officials who knows how to write I try to slip in split infinitives and have subordinate clauses separated by a comma whenever I can. His overall aim is clear and jargon-free communication and I’m sympathetic to that given the way bureaucrats talk, but the rules themselves are needlessly prescriptivist and one of them is non-sensical. The example of the “commas hunt in pairs” rule doesn’t, for instance, have anything to do with the Oxford comma, which pertains to lists.

    Comment by Sam Lowry — January 18, 2014 @ 10:44 am

  10. Has Finlayson sent the memo to his boss?

    Key doesn’t just split infinitives, he murders the whole language and spits on its grave.

    Priorities, Chris.

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — January 18, 2014 @ 11:12 am

  11. But that’s the spoken word, Sammy. Maybe he writes beautifully. /sarc

    Comment by Northshoreguynz — January 18, 2014 @ 11:15 am

  12. I actually agree with him about “community.” It’s not a bad word but it is massively over used by people in the public service and so you should probably have to remove it 9 out of 10 times that you use it.

    Comment by Amy — January 18, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

  13. As far as I can see he is specifying how things that he will be signing should be written. He isn’t laying down rules for the whole of Government is he?
    As such I think he is perfectly entitled to lay down how he wants his correspondence, and once he signs it it is HIS material, should be written.

    Comment by Alwyn — January 18, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

  14. No he’s specifying, in excruciating detail, how things he will be reading should be written. He’s obviously not busy enough.

    Comment by Judge Holden — January 18, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

  15. “Jihad” does actually mean ‘struggle’ or ‘striving’ in Arabic, and it includes in its semantic range the idea of inner struggle against temptation (‘the greater jihad’). So I suppose Finlayson might be using the word correctly, if he regards split infinitives as a spiritual evil to be overcome through prayer and self-discipline. I honestly wouldn’t put it past him.

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — January 18, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

  16. @Judge Holden.
    I think my interpretation is more likely to be correct than your suggestion. Most of Vance’s article is talking about how the letters they are writing for him to sign are to set out and the usage of the language in speechs they are writing for him to give.
    The only possible justification I can see for your view is the three ambiguous words “and briefing papers”. I say ambiguous because he both reads briefing papaers and distributes those which which are prepared for him as in the case of briefing papers that are prepared on proposals that he puts forward to be discussd in Cabinet.

    Comment by Alwyn — January 18, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  17. Having a corporate writing style change with each new administration must be a pain in the arse for staff, especially as so many style rules come down to personal preference. (Not even NZ newspapers agree on style rules, hence having their own house style.)

    Comment by Ataahua — January 18, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

  18. Hey come on guys, have some sympathy for Chris.

    It’s not acceptable in polite circles to just walk around with your degree certificate taped to your head, so he has to find some other way to signal how highly educated he is.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 18, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

  19. Where I certainly have sympathy for Finlayson is the way the press obviously pick photos of him either looking like a schoolmarm or a buttoned-down pervert.

    Comment by Gregor W — January 18, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

  20. You guys make Chris seem like an amateur pedant, hth’s, douchebags.

    Comment by bart — January 18, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

  21. So, this is what ministers do to earn their salaries?

    Apologies for the comma.

    His staff are so incompetent that they need to be reminded to speak plain language rather
    than the PR verbiage put out by press secretaries et al?

    He is a very brave minister indeed. Note, no. comma.

    With blatant talent like this we definitely need to have the National Party governing us.

    Note no comma.

    Comment by peterlepaysan — January 19, 2014 @ 12:03 am

  22. “So I suppose Finlayson might be using the word correctly, if he regards split infinitives as a spiritual evil to be overcome through prayer and self-discipline.”

    Celibacy does strange things to the mind.

    Comment by Sacha — January 19, 2014 @ 10:00 am

  23. The word ‘community’ has been banned from his speeches? How on earth is this MP going to do that part of his job??? Seriously.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — January 19, 2014 @ 11:16 am

  24. It’s a shame Pete George, aka ‘The Beige Badger, scourge of strongly held viewpoints’ is banned, he would probably make a valuable contribution to this thread.

    Comment by Trianon — January 20, 2014 @ 1:18 am

  25. I have some sympathy for Finlayson, but there are other bits of language usage which annoy me more. Top of the list are all those irritating cliches used by both journalists and – no doubt – policy wonks:
    1. “put his hand up/threw his hat in the ring”
    2 “war-torn”
    3. “tight-knit”
    4. “learnings”
    5. “family” to describe every workplace or institution
    6. “going forward”
    Etcetera….. Arrgh!

    Close behind in my annoyance list is the failure of said journalists etc to recognise that, because it’s an analytic language, word order in English is important for accurately conveying meaning. Every day, the newspapers carry examples of ambiguity – and plain clumsiness. It infuriates me.

    Because of language shift, Finlayson’s probably wasting his time chasing down the split infinitive. That was always just a convention, which has been overtaken by linguistic events, as it were. Last I looked, nobody worries about splitting future and past tenses, after all; viz. “I will probably go this afternoon” “he has never been there”. No doubt this convention was once adhered to in respect of other verb tenses, but no more.

    Comment by D'Esterre — January 20, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

  26. English is an analytic language?

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 20, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

  27. This was for missives written by Finlayson’s staff and purporting to have been written by the minister.

    Paula Bennett’s corresponding style guide probably requires the use of TXT and inclusion of the terms “bored of”, “ay” and “nek minnit”.

    Comment by richdrich — January 20, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  28. “Paula Bennett’s corresponding style guide probably requires the use of ”


    Comment by Sacha — January 20, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  29. There’s nothing wrong with split infinitives, or with Oxford commas. Being pedantic is one thing but being pedantic and wrong is another.

    Comment by Ross — January 20, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

  30. From the Economist’s style guide:

    Lazy journalists are always at home in oil-rich country A, ruled by ailing President B, the long-serving strongman, who is, according to the chattering classes, not squeaky clean but a wily political operator—hence the present uneasy peace—but, after his recent watershed (or ground-breaking or landmark or sea-change) decision to arrest his prime minister (the honeymoon is over), will soon face a bloody uprising in the breakaway south. Similarly, lazy business journalists always enjoy describing the problems of troubled company C, a victim of the revolution in the gimbal-pin industry (change is always revolutionary in such industries), which, well-placed insiders predict, will be riven by a make-or-break strike unless one of the major players makes an 11th-hour (or last-ditch) intervention in a marathon negotiating session.

    Comment by danylmc — January 21, 2014 @ 9:21 am

  31. It’s funny Finlayson’s ruled out using ‘community’ as it’s not hard to find press releases with him using the word:

    Comment by — January 21, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  32. @ Kalvarnsen: English is indeed an analytic language. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

    An analytic language is a language that conveys grammatical relationships without using inflectional morphemes. A grammatical construction can similarly be called analytic if it uses unbound morphemes, which are separate words, and/or word order. Analytic languages are in contrast to synthetic languages.”

    Latin, French, German and Russian are synthetic languages: they use inflections – affixes of various types – to indicate those grammatical relationships.

    Chinese – Mandarin at least – is an isolating language. It has almost no affixes, so word order is critical in conveying meaning.

    English still has some affixes, but very few compared to most European languages.

    Comment by D'Esterre — January 21, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

  33. @ danylmc (No. 30) That is a truly dreadful piece of writing. It could’ve appeared in any of our national daily newspapers

    Comment by D'Esterre — January 21, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

  34. re: Community

    Len Brown interviews are terrible for their overuse of the word “community’.

    He is always “out there, getting feedback from, people in the community”. It is used (and overused) to add warm fuzziness to his discussions.

    It is not that I have anything against the idea of community, but I to wish we could limit the overuse of it.

    Spin doctors and media trainers have obviously struck on this word as being unassailable, and have put it in the category of “Worm turning” words like “sensible”, “common sense” and “reasonable”

    For balance I also wish we could electrocute Stephen Joyce every time he says “The reality is…”.

    Comment by J Mex — January 21, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

  35. While we’re at it, can we all agree that it should be legal to summarily execute anyone refering to their reality-TV (or other publicly viewed) experiences as “an amazing journey”?

    Comment by Phil — January 21, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

  36. No, the risk of injustice is too high. We might end up killing someone who’s just easily amazed.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — January 21, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

  37. Reality is no place for such wide-eyed ingenues. To the wall with them!

    Comment by Gregor W — January 21, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

  38. “Tragedy” is my pet hate.

    Note to journos, flacks and speechwriters – “misfortune” and “misadventure” are perfectly good words.

    Comment by Gregor W — January 21, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  39. @D’Esterre: Oh right. I thought you meant some bollocks about English being a language that lends itself to analysis. Never mind, then.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 21, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

  40. See how much more time you have when you decide to be celibate. You can write a manual on writing and then be a prescriptivist idiot to everyone you manage.

    I reckon less time on ownership apostrophes and more time shagging would go this man a world of good.

    Comment by Tim — January 21, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

  41. @ Tim: in this household, there’s been some speculation about whether he’d apply his prescriptivist idiocy to the business of shagging. And what form that would take.

    Comment by D'Esterre — January 21, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

  42. Not to sloppily split infinitives. That is the Law. Are we not men?

    Comment by herr doktor bimler — January 21, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

  43. From the Economist’s style guide:

    I assume that you are acquainted with the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché

    Comment by herr doktor bimler — January 21, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

  44. Thank you Danyl!

    People tend to forget that all languages are made up, and not by one person setting the rules.

    My writing isn’t flash, but I have a simple style guide, “don’t waste time or ink”.

    Comment by Michael — January 22, 2014 @ 1:41 am

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