Even in the unlikeliest places, a little light shines. It turns out that the Government’s new integrated websites, which are called GOV.UK, have their own style guide. It is part of a section of the website called Content Principles, which is a little alarming, but the guide itself is mostly sensible. The best section is 1.5, headed ‘Plain English – mandatory for all of GOV.UK’, and which says, ‘We can do without’ 30 words, including ‘agenda (unless it is for a meeting)’, ‘foster (unless it is children)’ and ‘tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport)’.
It will, we fear, take more than a mere web page of good intentions to weed out these usages in the public sector, however ‘mandatory’ it says it is. But let us welcome this step in the right direction, even if a step in the right direction is a metaphor, and the guide is categorical on this subject: ‘Always avoid metaphors.’ Mind you, the examples it gives are worth avoiding: ‘drive (you can only drive vehicles; not schemes or people)’, ‘going forward (unless we are giving travel directions)’ and ‘ring fencing’. The only problem is that, without any of those, there would be no government policy left.
Ring fences are particularly annoying, not because they protect the NHS, schools and international aid budgets, but because they are in a ring. Fences generally form an enclosed shape, mostly roughly rectangular, but a ring fence is an unusual shape. The only time you see one of those is to fence off a hole in the ground, possibly where an old tin mine has collapsed, or one of those strange geological phenomena in America that swallows whole houses. Or a large pothole in a road, which might have five of those orange plastic barriers around it to give the impression that something is being done about it.
The warning ‘always’ to avoid metaphors goes too far. It would be more polite simply to suggest that people should remember the meaning of the metaphor. And not to use one that implies that the government’s policy is a hole in the ground.