The Finlayson style guide

January 24th, 2014 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

By popular request, Chris Finlayson has published his office . I especially like the phrases to be avoided:

  • I note
  • I am aware
  • I understand
  • Delighted
  • Strategy
  • Accessible
  • Outcome
  • Passion
  • Passionate
  • Stakeholder
  • Community
  • National Identity
  • Nationhood
  • I acknowledge
  • ‘Sense of self’
  • cutting edge
  • engage
  • strengthen our voice
  • shared experience as a nation
  • Celebrate

Also how to be succinct:

  • Sentences should be as short as possible. Avoid wordy phrases that can be said more simply.  For example, amend:

      -  ‘in my view’ to ‘I think’; 

      -  ‘I am writing to thank you’ to ‘Thank you’;

      -  ‘you have stated that’ to ‘you said’;

      -  ‘I trust that’ to ‘I hope’;

      -  ‘I wish to acknowledge’ to ‘I acknowledge’;

      -  ‘there are of course’ to ‘there are’;

      -  ‘I would like’ to ‘I want’;

This style guide may catch on!

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43 Responses to “The Finlayson style guide”

  1. unaha-closp (1,111 comments) says:

    Well at least overly long lists of bullet point notations remain fashionable.

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  2. big bruv (13,200 comments) says:

    Has Finlayson got nothing better to do with HIS time and MY money?

    What a wanker.

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  3. RRM (9,418 comments) says:

    Any attempt to improve writing standards in this country is welcome.

    Any attempt at all.

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  4. ross69 (3,652 comments) says:

    Be careful about the following grammar: It is not ‘Thank you for meeting my colleagues and I’. It is ‘Thank you for meeting my colleagues and me’

    Goodness, I agree with Finlayson. Except when he talks about Oxford commas and split infinitives and words to avoid. :)

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  5. duggledog (1,331 comments) says:

    Well he’s in for a nasty nasty shock in years to come when today’s kids get out of school and come to work for him (if he hasn’t retired!).

    I’m with RRM on this one

    The kids at my kids’ local school have been taught virtually no penmanship at all, and this is a high decile school, where one teacher in particular is routinely corrected on his spelling and grammar by the kids in his class. The girls are as always better at handwriting but most of the boys have a scrawl you wouldn’t have seen a preschooler present when I was a lad!

    I think grammar, punctuation, letter writing etc (a clear sign of intelligence) have been seen as an old fashioned waste of time for years by the edu sector. It’s terrible.

    Big Bruv I agree but…
    Quite often the ones who can use English very well are the ones who get the job.

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  6. Reid (15,904 comments) says:

    Unfortunately he got the punctuation wrong, per Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style – the industry standards.

    If you’re using quotes, always place them outside any punctuating mark: e.g. ‘there are;’ not ‘there are’;

    Common mistake, when you’re not properly educated. Chris.

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  7. alex Masterley (1,489 comments) says:

    Len Brown will have nothing left to say if he can’t use any of those words or phrases.

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  8. Scott Chris (5,869 comments) says:

    Laconic man Finlayson. He’d’ve liked the Spartans:

    After invading Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartan ephors replied with one word: “If”

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  9. James Stephenson (2,006 comments) says:

    Change ‘I wish to acknowledge’ to ‘I acknowledge’ and then avoid it all together per the first list? Perhaps start with making sure documents are internally consistent?

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  10. Pete George (22,728 comments) says:

    Talking about style guides, will this be the style for the next Prime Minister? https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Bes8qcMCYAAgukN.jpg

    David Parker has just issued a media release mentioning Justin Bieber, is that who Cunliffe is modeling himself on?

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  11. Nick R (497 comments) says:

    I wonder if the PM has read it.

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  12. kowtow (7,581 comments) says:

    Also to be avoided…….

    Treaty ‘settlements’…….which are actually transfers from the productive sector to the Maoriocracy.

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  13. peterwn (3,139 comments) says:

    big bruv – cabinet ministers, mayors, senior officials and senior managers (both public and private sectors) have letters or reports prepared for their signature – that is they take ‘ownership’ of the letter or report. Hence they are not going to tolerate bad spelling, poor layout or unacceptable grammar, it is a poor reflection on themselves and their office. Sir Winston Churchill was a stickler for this (he did fourth form (year 14) English three times at Harrow to get him up to scratch). Chris Finlayson is more fussy in this regard than average but that is his prerogative.

    Letters for a minister’s (or Minister’s?) signature often originate from a reasonably wide range of people, both in the minister’s office and in the departments he or she are responsible for, so it is quite reasonable that a ‘style guide’ to be assembled for their information. Most probably, it was assembled by some secretary from instances there Chris took issue with letters. So it is not a matter of Chris wasting personal time assembling a style guide.

    Finally Chris is a lawyer, so had to abide by style guides at law school, when preparing court documents and in law firms where he worked. He maintains ‘style guide’ discipline out of habit, and it is not a particularly bad habit to have.

    What is objectionable IMO is a manager who ‘corrects’ incoming letters like a teacher correcting an essay. They should form their views of the sender and move on.

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  14. Albert_Ross (243 comments) says:

    Don’t think I agree with that on quotation marks, Reid. There is a clear difference between

    Reid said: “I don’t know!” – ie, Reid was astonished not to know

    And:

    Reid said: “I don’t know”! – ie, the narrator is astonished that Reid should say that he doesn’t know

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  15. Andrew (77 comments) says:

    The first list annoys me. There are words in it that I must use in reports and presentations, because they are the words my clients use.

    The second list is excellent. Wherever you can, simply.

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  16. Joanne (177 comments) says:

    Wonderful man.

    My students will be getting a copy.

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  17. Carlos (686 comments) says:

    This kind of style guide and more is similar to “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

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  18. Jack5 (4,568 comments) says:

    What’s Finlayson doing, dithering about with style guides?

    Who cares about the style in bureaucratic responses – what counts is getting the bureaucrats to reply as quickly as possible and as openly.

    If Finlayson would like to be and even wants to be Minister of Pedantry, he should take another look at mandating that “I would like” is equivalent to “I want”. There is a subtle difference, and the fact that Finlayson doesn’t see this suggests something about his personality. He’s an austere, black and white thinker; he sees no shades of grey.

    That’s interesting given his central role in the huge settlement for South Island’s Ngai Tahu. In Finlayson’s mind perhaps it played out something like this: “That’s all the whalers and sealers and pioneers paid for the (mainly uninhabited, mainly mountainous) South Island? Then they deserve X hundred millions now.” Full stop. End of discussion.

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  19. PaulL (5,872 comments) says:

    @jack5. I would like implies a conditional. If the sky was blue today, I would like xxx. If it were raining, I would like xxx. It makes it harder to read for no good reason. I want or I need are clearer. But usually none of that is necessary. If the letter says “I would like you to provide a response by 5pm Thursday”, then “I want you to provide a response by 5pm Thursday” is an improvement, but nowhere near as good as “Please provide me a response by 5pm Thursday, or alternatively provide me advice by 2pm Tuesday as to why that is not possible and the timeframe you suggest instead.” A much clearer statement and better for everyone.

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  20. Reid (15,904 comments) says:

    Don’t think I agree with that on quotation marks, Reid.

    Next time you’re there, have a look at the usage on MSM websites and in novels and textbooks, they all use Strunk & White or CMOS. Sometimes they get it wrong but it’s the exception. But most of the public don’t know the rule.

    I’m surprised Chris didn’t mention its vs it’s. That’s another common one.

    It’s fun being pedantic. Not.

    He didn’t mention that, either. :)

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  21. SGA (800 comments) says:

    I’d add – Don’t utilise “utilise” when “use” is sufficient.

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  22. Scott Chris (5,869 comments) says:

    I wonder if the PM has read it.

    No the PM has his own list of unnecessary vowel sounds.

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  23. Peter (1,577 comments) says:

    Good on him. Clear writing should be encouraged.

    A suggestion:

    “Use plain English. Avoid waffle at all costs.”

    Should be….

    “Use plain English. Avoid waffle.”

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  24. dime (9,355 comments) says:

    “Has Finlayson got nothing better to do with HIS time and MY money?”

    Yeah, it must have taken him all of 30 minutes….

    You can imagine the language these public sector wankers use trying to sound important. It would be a world of john mitchell/ john bracewell speak urgh

    Also bruv, YOUR money isn’t going to him, yours goes directly to that lazy bitch down the road with 3 kids who has no intention of working, ever. (i call her a lazy bitch, the left call her an amazing angel).

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  25. oob (194 comments) says:

    This is simple regurgitation of Sir Ernest Gowers’ ‘Complete Plain Words’ for those who haven’t read it.

    Finlayson would have done better to attribute to the source.

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  26. Albert_Ross (243 comments) says:

    Reid, please punctuate the following correctly, for according to your rule it is incorrect.

    What did Shakespeare mean, when he wrote “If music be the food of love, play on”?

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  27. Jack5 (4,568 comments) says:

    Re Paul L’s 2.22 post on Finlayson’s mandating “want” rather than “would like”:

    You point out that “would like” is subjunctive, however, there are other aspects to its use. The gradations are important for those who from on high are responding to inquiries from us plebs. IMHO, I don’t think there should be a hard and fast rule about the use of either; the details of the subject will show which is appropriate.

    If there must be a politician’s style, however, perhaps “I want” should be the style for list MPs, such as Finlayson, and “I would like” a more civil reponse for electorate MP’s.

    Learning other languages, you are usually made aware of the polite and less subtle gradations of request. An interesting way to see the shades of this in English is to look at the sites of the language schools teach English to foreigners.

    Here is an example of a discussion on a popular web site for language learners about “want” v. “would like” in English:

    “Want” is direct and simple. Use this when you are definite and stating a fact. However, be aware that being direct may also sound rude and selfish.

    “Would like” is suitable for requests and wishes. It is indirect and polite because it expresses something imagined (subjunctive), not something factual and direct.

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  28. Jack5 (4,568 comments) says:

    Re Dime posted on Kiwiblog at 3.01 something about “lazy bitch down the road with 3 kids”.

    You are posting mid-afternoon (like the rest of us) on a blog and are rubbishing a woman with three kids down the road for being lazy?

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  29. Reid (15,904 comments) says:

    What did Shakespeare mean, when he wrote “If music be the food of love, play on”?

    What did Shakespeare mean, when he wrote “If music be the food of love, play on?”

    Like I said, have a look at professional writers, like media sites and books. And lookup Strunk & White.

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  30. Random Punter (65 comments) says:

    Sorry, Reid, that’s incorrect. “If music be the food of love, play on” is an imperative, not a question, so the question mark belongs outside the inverted commas. It’s the whole sentence, not the quoted part, which is the question.

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  31. Stephen Stratford (45 comments) says:

    Reid @3:18, Strunk & White is great but it’s American. US usage is a lot different from NZ. I know – I am a professional editor, have worked in both markets. There is no one style guide that fits all. Chicago is useful, but not nearly as much in NZ as the ‘Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors’ or the ‘Economist Style Guide’. Every newspaper, every magazine has its own in-house style guide. Clarity is the point of all style guides. What Chris is doing is simply setting a style for his office. No one would agree with all of it but it will lead to a huge increase in clarity. Good.

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  32. Jack5 (4,568 comments) says:

    Re Stephen Stratford at 3.32:

    What are we seeing in your industry, Stephen? As the MSM fades and as pressure goes on the traditional book industry, are we seeing editors seeking new lines of business?

    Style guide designs for MP’s? Style guides tailored for local body politicians? Style guides created individually for Mayor and bureaucrats?

    Long shot, Stephen. Editors would be better learning how to code in a computer language.

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  33. dime (9,355 comments) says:

    Jack 5 – youd be amazed what I have achieved in the last hour. It takes a full minute to post here..

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  34. Jack5 (4,568 comments) says:

    Good on you Dime! You’re obviously a touch typist.

    Spade in hand, saw nearby, sweat on the brow, tablet computer in back pocket for posting during puffing breaks. Good man.

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  35. dime (9,355 comments) says:

    Jack5 – what on earth are you taking about?

    *keyboard warrior*

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  36. elscorcho (151 comments) says:

    While I admire Finlayson’s intent, the execution is lacking.

    Language, like architecture, is not purely utilitarian. It would be incredibly efficient and effective to build rectangular boxes (waterproof, insulated etc) for all of our needs (living, working), but we don’t. We realise architectural values matter, and that buildings should have an aesthetic value.

    It is the same for language. There are some good rules to follow – Fowler’s rules still stand the test of time (TKE 3rd Edition, or MEU 2nd Edition – do NOT use MEU 3rd edition unless you are a Philistine). But those rules do not mean that all decoration is unnecessary.

    An example of a factually incorrect approach is seen in Finlayson’s guide “and ‘the Treaty settlements process’ should be just ‘Treaty settlements’” – it suggests that the two approaches are synonymous. They are not. This mistake is repeated multiple times where it is suggested that two constructions, X and Y, are synonymous. “You have stated that” and “you said” are completely different; the former conveys a sense of a factual, formal statement whereas the later has no such connotations. I could go on, but I am sure others will understand.

    Finlayson’s hatred of the Oxford/Harvard comma is becoming increasingly popular, and it is a disturbing trend. The Oxford/Harvard comma clarifies superbly. It is up there with the use of the semi-colon for lengthy lists in the way it cuts through potential confusion.

    Then there are his words to avoid, such as “strategy”, “community”, and “national identity.” Strategy sits above the operational and tactical levels of war. Community is a wonderful package of senses. National identity is one of the most important concepts of modern life; without it we become a nation of shopkeepers.

    Lastly, Finlayson’s hatred of “heads up” is hilarious. Both “head” and “up” are good Anglo Saxon words. His preferred alternative “preliminary indication” is pure Latin. And as Fowler says, good English speakers always prefer the Anglo Saxon to the Latin!

    El Scorch.

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  37. elscorcho (151 comments) says:

    If you want a good style guide, Modern English Usage 2nd edition. Done.

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  38. elscorcho (151 comments) says:

    @PaulL:

    you do not say “I would like”, you say “I should like”. Read your Fowler.

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  39. Steve (North Shore) (4,489 comments) says:

    …quadle oodle ardle waddle doodle…
    … eh?…

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  40. MH (624 comments) says:

    Tena koe -All maori phrases and salutory greetings are to be retained with reverence,no ifs no buts.
    However I do intend at the next Treaty settlement sorry,Tirri Iti is to be used at all times,however i do intend,cross out, inset I will be delivering,no I give money away.no that won’t do…..I’ll come back to y’all real soon.This memo not to apply to indigenous,delete,aboriginal,no,use Maori. Seek clarification with kaumatua,Hone.

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  41. MH (624 comments) says:

    I suspect he is looking ahead,past full and final en Treaty Settlements,to future claims,yes he’s thinking outside the “imposed” fiscal envelope,devilishly clever,at this point of time. He and the extinguished G. Palmer would be tied up in “nots” for years to come,constitiutional reform in 10 easy commandments. His Bible must be a blurr of authorised corrections. I can just see his draft on native land rights,customary land title, and the definition of MHWS and riparian margins. Minister of Flotsam,jetsam,ligan, derelict and Marginal Words.

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  42. Duxton (579 comments) says:

    “I trust that” and “I hope” aren’t the same.

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  43. lolitasbrother (467 comments) says:

    all good apparently, until you know the politic of Finlayson is as devious, and anti European as they get

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