24 Aug 2019

You and non-you: MPs tangled in grammar

From The House , 12:00 pm on 24 August 2019

The grammar of being an MP is harder than you might think. MPs in Parliament choose their words with care, and not only because they can't call each other liars or cheats. And it just got more complicated.

It may seem that MPs are always shouting at each other, but they are not; they are actually always shouting at the Speaker. 

Everything said in the House is said to the Speaker. Everything. Questions, answers, interjections, quips and asides. Everything.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard

 Everything said in the House is said to the Speaker. Everything. Questions, answers, interjections, quips and asides. Everything. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The Speaker is a giant go-between sitting between opposing sides and hearing their messages to each other.

MPs pepper their speeches with “Mister Speaker” to remind themselves of who they’re talking to. This is meant to stop a debate turning into a brawl. But it also makes for confusing grammar. 

MPs have never been allowed to say “you” in the chamber (unless addressing the Speaker). Until this week (sort of). But more on that below. 

MPs forget this rule and say “you” frequently. Usually to direct accusations at another party. Speakers tire of reminding them that shouting “you’re incompetent” across the chamber is only attacking the messenger. 

In the House you throw insults in the second person; so “you're a muppet" is not allowed, but “they're a muppet" is fine.   

But this week the Speaker made a ruling that changes all of that. Well, changes some of that, and only a little bit. But it changes it enough to royally confuse many MPs. 

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House

Trevor Mallard, Speaker of the House and former teacher won't be giving out many A's for grammar.  Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Trevor Mallard announced he was trialing a relaxation of the ban on “you”. But only sometimes. MPs would now be allowed to say “you” in the impersonal, objective, possessive forms; so, where they are speaking about no-one in particular or themselves. 

But they still can’t directly address other MPs.

The aftermath of the ruling was likely to make English teachers everywhere cry into their cups of tea. 

The general debate was alive with “you” but only a handful of them were allowed under the new rule.

One serial house-grammar offender, Mark Mitchell, thanked the Speaker for the ruling, said he was showered with congratulations on his ‘victory’, and declared himself “a beneficiary of that ruling”.  He’s really not.

Some MPs seemed to think the Speaker had thrown the gates wide open on the use of “you”, and the Speaker was soon drowning in pronouns. 

Some MPs appeared confused to be corrected as they basked in grammatical freedom. Others tangled themselves up trying to find the correct form. 

Deputy leader of the National Party Paula Bennett.

 “No you don’t, no they don’t, no, you don’t”. National Party Deputy Leader, Paul Bennett. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Paula Bennett was first off the block in the debate. She caught herself using a direct “you” in castigating the Government, self-corrected to “they”, but then, sounding confident in this brave new world, changed it back to be wrong again. 

“No you don’t, no they don’t; no you don’t.”

When pulled up after later infringements and reminded by the Speaker he had just made a ruling on this, she declared: “I’m trying to test it out. Not on you though, Mr Speaker; on ‘them-you’.”

Fortunately the Speaker had a tiny tot to nurse or he might have sunk into grammatical despair.