21st March 1997 at 00:00
Should Labour win the election and the Funding Agency for Schools find itself under notice of dismissal (it is apparently to be phased out, which would presumably entail it disappearing in much the same way as the Cheshire Cat) there could be a fine new career in store for its head of communications, one Roger Witts.

Carborundum has just taken delivery of a racy style guide for agency staff, apparently written after the dreadful incident when it was discovered that not a single member of one department knew what a split infinitive was. Not one of them, it is said, had yet celebrated their 34th birthday and so they had not enjoyed the benefits of an old-fashioned education.

Mr W's explanation is slightly different. "The biggest problem is persuading younger members of the agency staff to stop regarding headteachers as demigods likely to be impressed by formality and verbosity and start regarding them as people in a hurry, under stress and with limited time in which to receive a message."

Anyway, Witts's Guide To Writing Proper Letters should, in Carborundum's humble opinion, be widely circulated for its sly wit, common sense and clarity. "Schools have observed in the past that agency staff have an open, jargon-free and user-friendly style in face-to-face conversation and in telephone communications, but that when we put pen to paper we tend to 'revert to civil servants'. Avoid pompous phrases, verbosity and brusqueness."

A quick whizz through verbs active and passive, confusingly similar words and vile Americanisms, and Mr Witts is on a subject close to Carborundum's heart. Acronyms.

"Do not invent meaningless acronyms. This is a pointless exercise (APE) and causes real annoyance (RA) to your readers. Avoid the temptation to write bureaucratese - an incomprehensible mixture of jargon and cliche. Never refer to 'your communication of the 9th ult.' and never have 'the honour to remain your humble and obedient servant'. These belong to a different world and are more likely to reduce the recipient to tears of laughter than to prove your own competence with the English language."

Amd then there is a section of pure joy, in which Mr W untangles foreign syntax: "The plural of agenda is agendas not agendae, and the plural of syllabus is syllabuses not syllabi. Remember that you do not speak of a spaghetto, or of planting delphinia or of calculating surpli."

Finally, the guide gives its wisest bit of advice. "Always use the spellchecker, for any text you prepare. Never rely on it absolutely. The sentence 'I new their wood bee sum moor' would evade a spellchecker and dent your credibility with your readers."

Indeed. What a pity that a leading food manufacturer, upon receiving a complaint about the quality of a prosciutto and mushroom pizza, did not take Mr Witts' advice before posting its reply. Goodness knows what Delia Smith would make of the concept of a prostitute and mushroom pizza, but Carborundum's mind is boggling.

And while we're dealing with matters linguistic, let's take on board the indignant (anonymous) complaint about the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's latest sample tests of grammar, spelling and punctuation for 14-year-olds. As always, it is the apostrophes which are causing the problems.

"The answer to why parents' first-aid classes (with the apostrophe after the s) is used is 'because the word is plural' so it effectively discriminates against single parents in a way that schools have been resisting for years. There are no marks for noticing that the reason is the insensitivity of the writer!

"The second question asks about the apostrophe in the school's magazine, and the answer is that 'school is singular'. This ignores the fact that the noun 'school' is used adjectivally here, not to show possession and, therefore, doesn't need an apostrophe, as in school secretary and school minibus. Or do SCAA's experts commute from the railway's station?" If they are South West Trains' passengers and therefore travelling by bus, the answer might well be yes.

Inspections by the Office for Standards in Education, according to school staffroom folklore, are painful experiences. But one hapless inspector got a sharp come-uppance when she went a little too far with an attempt at sympathy with an audience of hard-pressed teachers.

Plain-speaking Liverpudlian Tony McKee, chairman of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, tells how the Woodhead footsoldier got carried away with a gory comparison between being inspected and giving birth.

She described the pain and trauma involved in both experiences, the blood, sweat and tears, the seemingly never-ending ordeal and so on. But in the end, when the shiny new baby, or OFSTED report, was produced, there would be joy, a great glow of pride and a burst of hope for the future.

The gathered teachers were stunned into silence, until a lone voice piped up from the back of the hall: "Anyone know an effective contraceptive?"

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today