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Gen Cowan's Edict

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Maj Gen Cowan's six tips on etiquette:

  • Sandwiches

"Quite a few officers in the divisional mess seem to be under the impression that they can eat their food with their hands. The practice of serving rolls and sandwiches in the mess is to stop. A gentleman or lady always uses a knife and fork."

  • Dinner party

"A good party relies on good conversation. This requires you to come prepared to be free, funny and entertaining.Thank you letters are an art form not a chore. It is generally considered better manners if the spouse is the person who writes."

  • Knife and fork

"The fork always goes in the left hand and the knife in the right. Holding either like a pen is unacceptable, as are stabbing techniques. The knife and fork should remain in the bottom third of the plate and never be laid down in the top half."

  • Officers

"Ten years ago, officers would stand up when the commanding officer walked into the room. This doesn’t happen any more. I expect a junior officer to make an effort at conversation. Start by introducing yourself and talk on any civilised subject outside work."

  • Successful marriage

"I recently went to a Burns night, spoilt only by a curious decision to sit husbands next to wives. The secret of a successful marriage is never to sit next to your spouse at dinner, except when dining alone at home. It displays a marked degree of insecurity."

  • Grammar

"In common with officialdom the world over, military writers love to use pompous words over simpler language. Combined with underlining and italics, the wanton use of capitals, abbreviations and acronyms assaults the eye and leaves the reader exhausted."

The letter in full


Chaps, At the risk of sounding like a parent, I should be grateful if you could pass on the following collected wisdom, which I know you know, but others don't.

They should know that when I see/hear/read these things, I become distracted by them, to the detriment of more important matters. Ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law, but I can well see that if we don't ever tell people these things, they can't reasonably be expected to know.

I therefore think it only fair that you do know that I take a dim view of those who live in ignorance of these simple rules of civilised life.

Good Writing A lot of military writing is verbose and pompous. Start by following Orwell's six rules.

- Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

- Never use a long word where a short one will do.

- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

- Never use the passive when you can use the active

- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you think of an everyday English equivalent

- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous

Military writers love acronyms. Don't use them unless they are so familiar as to be commonplace - NATO, UN, MOD are all acceptable. But don't then clutter up the page by spelling them out: for instance, you don't need to write 'Unmanned Aerial Vehicle' in full; it looks clumsy. Instead, find an everyday word we all understand - for instance 'drone'.

Military writers misuse numerals. You cannot write '10 years ago', it must be 'ten', until you reach the teens at which point 13, 14 etc are acceptable. '4 Rifles' is right because it is a title, but '4 rifles are missing from the armoury is wrong; it should be 'four rifles'.

In common with officialdom the world over, military writers love to use pompous words over simpler language. Don't write 'commence' when you could use 'start' or 'begin'. Similarly, 'walk' not 'proceed', and 'buy' not 'procure'. Military writers love verbal nouns: for instance 'we will transition into the Army 2020 structure'.

This language offends any civilised person. Why not use 'move' instead of transition? Listed below are some more examples. You will note that the left hand column tend to be longer and Latin, the right hand column tend to be simpler and Anglo Saxon (but not exclusively).

Bad - Good - Cognisant - Aware/know (why do we use this curious word? If your wife asked if you were 'cognisant' that it was her birthday, you would think something amiss!)

- Utilise - Use

- Migrate Move

- Asymmetric - Different

- Transportation - Transport

- Couch/settee - Sofa

- Serviette - Napkin

- Toilet - Loo

- Pardon? - What? (some people think saying 'what?' sounds a bit curt, but 'pardon' can only be used as a noun or a verb and never as an interrogative).

- Sufficient - Enough

- Chef - Cook

- Whilst - While (you will never see whilst in a well written newspaper)

- Perfume - Scent

- Pass on - Die

- Wealthy - Rich

- Preserve - Jam

- Sweet/dessert - Pudding

- Cruet - Salt and pepper

John Betjeman's 'How to Get on In Polite Society', gently mocks those who are addicted to this sort of language:

Phone for the fish knives, Norman

As cook is a little unnerved;

You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes

And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?

The frills round the cutlets can wait

Till the girl has replenished the cruets

And switched on the logs at the grate.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,

But the vestibule's comfy for tea

And Howard is riding on horseback

So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries

And do use the couch for your feet;

I know that I wanted to ask you-

Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?

I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;

Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys

With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

Military writers also love capital letters. Take a look at a well written book or newspaper and you will see how few capital letters are used.

They should only be used at the start of a sentence, or with a proper noun. As an example, Colonel Smith has a capital C, but 'the colonel' does not.

Combined with underlining and italics, the wanton use of capitals, abbreviations and acronyms assaults the eye and leaves the reader exhausted.

I notice a great many writers confuse the following words:

- Verbal for oral

- Disinterested/uninterested

- Anticipate for expect

- Fewer/less

- Infer/imply

- Comprise/consist of

- Require for need

- Although/though

- Meet/meet with

- Gender/sex

- Male, female/man, woman (the first are adjectives not nouns)

Others routinely confuse the following:

- Dependent/dependant

- Licence/license

- Practice/practise

- Principle/principal

- Lead/led

- Liaise

- Stationary/stationery

- Affect/effect

- Compliment/complement

Good Manners I turn now to more sensitive territory. Quite rightly, we recruit our officers from a broad pool. I don't want them to be disadvantaged by innocent ignorance. I would rather they knew what is expected of them. Some examples:

Quite a few officers in the divisional mess seem to be under the impression that they can eat their food with their hands. The practice of serving rolls and sandwiches in the mess is to stop.

A gentleman or lady uses a knife and fork. And while on the subject of knives and forks, I see a great many frankly barbaric techniques on display.

The fork goes in the left hand and the knife in the right, unless the food may be eaten with just a fork, in which case it should be held in the right hand.

Holding either like a pen is unacceptable, as are stabbing techniques. The knife and fork should remain in the bottom third of the plate and never laid down in the top half. When finished, they should put together in the six o'clock position.

- I expect a junior officer to make an effort at conversation. Start by introducing yourself and range widely on any civilised subject outside work.

- Ten years ago as a CO, officers would stand up when the commanding officer walked into the ante-room. This doesn't see to happen any more.

- I recently went to a fun Burns night in the mess, spoilt only by a curious decision to sit husbands next to wives. The secret of a successful marriage is never to sit next to your spouse at dinner, except when dining alone at home where no alternative is possible. The practice displays a marked degree of insecurity and is to stop.

- I give frequent dinner parties and it has become apparent that many Army couples don't know that a good party relies on good conversation.

This requires you to come prepared to be free, funny and entertaining. It also requires you to know that the hostess will begin conversation at the table with the guest seated on her right.

The other women should follow suit, and in this way, no one is omitted from conversation. Halfway through dinner, the hostess will direct her conversation to the guest seated on her left, and the guests should do the same.

As you are mostly men, you will bugger this plan up if you start by trying to talk to the woman on your right. However, sometimes there is an imbalance between the numbers of men and women so a courteous guest will always make sure everyone is included.

- Thank you letters are an art form not a chore. If a military couple come to a dinner party, it looks like a chore if the serving officer is the person who writes the letter. It is generally considered better manners if the spouse is the person who writes. A thank you letter should avoid the following pitfalls:

- It must always be hand-written

- It should be on two sides

- It should never begin with the words 'thank you'

- It should absolutely avoid service writing and be in a much more informal style [From: Lt Col I A M A Blithering-Idiot OBE is not necessary]

- It should seek to amuse and not to list things [the starter was nice, I liked the red wine, pudding was novel, etc ... is not a good way to win over your hostess]

- It absolutely must avoid taking the form of a debrief, a thank you letter is not a hotel suggestions book

- It should start 'Dear xxx (the hostess's first name)

- It should end Yours ever, John, or love Jane, not Yours sincerely, John, which is how you write to someone you don't know, such as the bank manager.

Summary For the brigade commanders: on a rather more serious point, I am worried that our officer corps is becoming increasingly introverted and bad at reaching out to wider society.

On visits, I keep meeting commanding officers who aren't using the tools at their disposal: their entertainment allowances; their messes, their bands, their training. We are working on an influence plan to rectify this.

In the meantime, I want COs to start getting into a much more extrovert mindset and to think through their own influence matrix.

Finally, I should say that the vast majority of people I meet are intelligent, friendly and good company, so this email is simply to help those who need a little nudge.

For the 3 Div team, please disseminate as necessary and could someone please hold a mess meeting so that the non 3 Div people who use our mess get the point.

James


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