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Plain Words

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Ernest Gowers
 
PLAIN WORDS
A Guide to the Use of English

Revised and updated by
Rebecca Gowers

Contents

Preface

  
I
  
P
ROLOGUE

Do you know, say and convey what you mean? — Using the right words is all important.

 
II
  
A D
IGRESSION ON
L
EGAL
E
NGLISH

The language of statutory documents lies outside the scope of this book.

III
  
T
HE
E
LEMENTS

Think for others rather than yourself. — How to draft a letter. — Three fundamental precepts: Be short. Be simple. Be human.

 
IV
  
C
ORRECTNESS

A fourth precept: Be correct. — Discipline in official writing. — Efforts to preserve pure English: vain resistance to new words and new meanings. — The duty of the official. — Incorrect words and phrases. — Some points of idiom and of spelling.

 
V
  
T
HE
C
HOICE OF
W
ORDS
(1)
:
Introductory

Ready and precise meaning. — Causes of the converse: examples and remedies. — Use few, familiar and precise words.

VI
  
T
HE
C
HOICE OF
W
ORDS
(2)
:
Avoiding the superfluous word

Some types of verbosity. — Padding.

 
VII
  
T
HE
C
HOICE OF
W
ORDS
(3)
:
Choosing the familiar word

Types of failure. — Jargon and legal diction. — Seductive, showy words.

VIII
  
T
HE
C
HOICE OF
W
ORDS
(4)
:
Choosing the precise word

Lure of the abstract word. — The headline phrase. — Overworked words often used imprecisely.

IX
  
T
HE
H
ANDLING OF
W
ORDS

Grammar, its nature and importance. — Troubles in arranging various parts of speech.

  
X
  
P
UNCTUATION

Write so as to be clear with a minimum of stops, and use stops for clarity. — Right and wrong use of the various stops, etc.

XI
  
E
PILOGUE

It is especially important that official writing should be good. — The language is not in decay.

Appendix
:
Legal English cannot be pretty if it is to serve its purpose

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Sir Ernest Gowers was born in 1880, and became a leading civil servant. He ran the civil defence of London during the Second World War, chaired the 1953 Royal Commission into Capital Punishment, wrote the bestseller
Plain Words
, and became the first editor of H. W. Fowler's classic
Dictionary of Modern English Usage
.

Rebecca Gowers is the author of
The Swamp of Death
, shortlisted for the CWA non-fiction Golden Dagger Award, and of two novels,
When to Walk
and
The Twisted Heart
, both longlisted for the Orange Prize.

PENGUIN BOOKS

PLAIN WORDS

Praise for the original
Plain Words
:

‘“The use of commas cannot be learned by rule”. Such was the opinion of the great Sir Ernest Gowers; and I have to say I find that a comfort, coming from the grand old boy himself' Lynne Truss,
Eats, Shoots and Leaves

‘The zeal with which Sir Ernest uncovers error is matched only by the wit with which he chastises it'
Evening Standard

‘Elegance, wit and good sense… Gowers's main precepts are as sensible today as they were when he first presented them… beneficial, intelligent and sympathetic' David Crystal,
English Today

‘One of the things that makes Gowers such an engaging figure is that he wasn't prissy, priggish or prim. As far as he was concerned, language was a living thing that was constantly changing – and this was just as it should be' John Preston,
Sunday Telegraph

‘Its impact on British society was immeasurable… it has never been out of print' John Walsh,
Independent

‘I am in full sympathy with the doctrine laid down by Sir Ernest Gowers' Winston Churchill

Praise for the new edition:

‘Rebecca Gowers has been charged with… producing a version which is true to the spirit of the original but adapted to the needs of the 21st century. She discharges this task with wit and delicacy' Stefan Collini,
Prospect

‘Gowers's
Plain Words
is a titan… This new, 4th edition has had the good fortune to be edited by Gowers's great-granddaughter… She has done her job with sympathy, sense and style, and… she is not afraid to tease her ancestor' Ross Leckie,
Country Life

‘The book has been modernised but preserves all its original charm… in the age of textspeak and the internet… there is arguably a greater need for its circulation among the general public'
Big Issue

‘
Plain Words
should be re-issued to all public servants' Eliza Manningham-Buller,
Spectator

‘A classic – and a godsend for writers of every kind' Caroline Taggart

Preface

Ernest Gowers was born in 1880 into a well-heeled London family. His father, Sir William Gowers, was a celebrated neurologist, one of the founders of the discipline, whose immense body of work on the subject is today described by Oliver Sacks as ‘matchless'. But this work—minute, illustrated observations of disorders ranging from syphilis to writer's cramp—was not the only comprehensive record he left behind. He also kept delightful accounts of all the larks and entertainments that he provided for Ernest and his siblings. They went to the river for steamer rides, to Lord's for the cricket, to the Zoo to see Jumbo the Elephant, and to the Egyptian Hall for performances by the amazing automaton artist, Zoe; they took in magic displays where people's heads were cut off, ladies disappeared and electric storms ripped round the room; they even visited the famous Wild West show, where Annie Oakley shot glass balls out of the air while Buffalo Bill commanded massed ranks of rough riders.

But these pleasures had been hard earned. William Gowers's own upbringing was impoverished by comparison. His father, a Hackney bootmaker, died when William was only eleven, catapulting the boy into a world marked by graveyards, gun shops and gelatine factories. This misfortune for the child, compounded by the death of all his siblings, seems to have led him to seize almost with desperation on whatever chances came his way. There is scant record of his early education, but he started his career in medicine aged sixteen as the apprentice of a country doctor, at the
same time studying by correspondence for the London University matriculation. Diaries he kept at the time show him to have been exhausted and sometimes harrowed by this existence, one requiring an effort of will on his part of a kind we now associate with the young Charles Dickens. And it is therefore perhaps little surprise that when the time came—beyond the cowboys and elephants and other jollifications—Dr Gowers would take great care over the formal education of his sons.

Ernest Gowers was sent to Rugby in 1895. He went on to read Classics at Cambridge, and in 1903 passed what was by then a genuinely competitive exam for the Home Civil Service. Though he also soon afterwards qualified as a barrister, he did not take up law. Instead, he remained in the Civil Service, advancing rapidly, until in 1911 he was appointed Principal Private Secretary to Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This was, as Gowers would later recall, a stormy period in which to take up post. Lloyd George was attempting against the odds to usher a ‘socialist' National Insurance Bill through Parliament: he faced virulent public opposition, not least from the British Medical Association and the Northcliffe Press. And getting the Bill passed was merely the start. In short order, Gowers found himself one of a crack team of young civil servants charged with the immense task of making the resulting Act work. These young men were nicknamed the ‘loan collection' because they had been drawn from across several departments, but Gowers called them a ‘desperate remedy'. Not only were they being asked to implement from scratch an entire system of health and unemployment insurance, and somehow to explain its complexities clearly to the public, but they were also being required to do so in a matter of months. Difficult as this task was, however, those to whom it had fallen would soon view it as having been good preparation for the yet greater challenges that came with the outbreak of war.

In 1914 most members of the loan collection were reassigned.
Though Gowers continued to work at Wellington House, the building where the National Insurance Commission was based, this was now a front: ‘Wellington House' became the code name for a covert propaganda unit. Gowers started as its General Manager, but within a year had risen to the position of Chief Executive Officer. The job of the unit was to make the case for going to war. Many writers secretly agreed to give their services, among them H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Arnold Bennett, A. C. Benson, Robert Bridges, G. K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Henry James, Hilaire Belloc, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. A. S. Watt, the prominent literary agent, was drawn in both as an adviser and as a go-between conducting undercover negotiations with sympathetic publishing houses. It was important to the credibility of the works sponsored by the unit—initially books and pamphlets, in many languages—that its existence should remain unknown. Within nine months ‘Wellington House' had more than ninety titles in print, with two and a half million copies of these titles circulating at home and abroad.

When the war ended, Gowers was appointed permanent head of the Department of Mines; his working life between the wars would be almost entirely devoted to coal. He was knighted for these labours, but found the work intensely frustrating. The coal owners left him, he said, in ‘despair': he described the ‘force of self-interest' among them as ‘centrifugal'. He was relieved, therefore, in the aftermath of the General Strike, to be given three years as Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue. There he began a campaign to ensure that tax officials should seem approachable and should be easy to understand in their letters to taxpayers. But he was soon returned to coal.

Only when the Second World War loomed would Gowers again be diverted, asked to give some of his time to planning for civil defence. Then, very shortly after the war began, he was
appointed Senior Regional Commissioner for London. What this meant in practice was that for almost the whole of the war, and the worst of the Blitz, he coordinated the civil defence of the capital.

His base was a bunker beneath the Geological Survey Office at the Natural History Museum. Churchill's instructions to him were daunting: ‘If communication with the Government becomes very difficult or impossible, it may be necessary for you to act on behalf of the Government … without consultation with ministers'. In this event—particularly if the Government had fled London—it would be Gowers's duty to govern the city directly himself. Its seven million people would be his responsibility, and he could order any emergency measures he thought fit. ‘Such action, duly recorded,' explained Churchill, ‘will be supported by the Government, and the Government will ask Parliament to give you whatever indemnification may subsequently be found necessary.' Gowers speculated in a speech of 1943 that if he were ever forced to assume these powers, the matter would end with him dangling from a lamp post. His bunker was supplied with three separately laid telephone lines, and he could only hope that they would never all be blown up at once.

Gowers wrote after the Blitz, ‘Everyone expected that we should infallibly be bombed like hell', but noted that, despite this, when the war actually began, London was ‘thoroughly unprepared' because ‘what had to be prepared for was unknown'. If it was impossible to work out in advance all the measures that would be needed in any attempt to counter the damage done by the bombing, it was equally impossible to grasp ahead of time the huge administrative challenge of implementing these measures. Gowers was forced to take swift decisions in what he called ‘hideous' and ‘desolating' circumstances with very little useful precedent to guide him; but he would come to be praised for the inspiringly imperturbable way in which he went about his duties as
Commissioner. When he wrote later about his admiration for the Londoners he had served, he said simply this, ‘We withstood'.

Gowers, writing in the midst of war, described himself as ‘but a transient and embarrassed phantom flitting across the stage of history'. Once the war had ended, his name was added to a Treasury list of those increasingly referred to as ‘the Great and the Good', people who were thought suitable for such posts as chairing advisory committees and Royal Commissions. Several of these appointments came his way in quick succession. He chaired the New Town Development Corporation for Harlow, one of the towns built to relieve homelessness among London's bombed-out East Enders. He also chaired a wide array of committees. One investigated allowing women to join the Foreign Service; another, shop opening hours; a third, the preservation of historic houses; a fourth, measures to combat foot-and-mouth disease. Most prominently, though, starting in 1949, he chaired a Royal Commission into Capital Punishment. The Commission was asked to consider whether there were rational arguments for imposing tighter limits on Britain's use of the death penalty, but Gowers controversially breached these terms in the Commission's report, where he raised the idea that the best policy might be—as he found himself passionately believing—to abolish it altogether.

PLAIN WORDS

Gowers undertook his many chairmanships at the same time as doing the work for which he was destined to be best remembered. He had spoken out about baroque official English at least as early as 1929, when he remarked in a speech that he gave on civil servants:

It is said: first, that we thirst for power over our fellow-men and lose no opportunity of sapping the freedom of the public
by extending the tentacles of bureaucracy; secondly, that in our administration we are unimaginative, rigid, cumbrous, and inelastic; and thirdly, that we revel in jargon and obscurity.

Gowers agreed at least in part with these criticisms, and he returned to the theme in a talk that he gave in 1943 to civil defence workers. There had been a fear, once a lull set in after the Blitz at the start of the war, that the various civil defence services would be unable to keep their members at ‘concert pitch' against further aerial bombardment (which was indeed to come). Gowers's talk was one of many designed to entertain these workers and keep them from getting too ‘browned off'. He pointed out to his audience with humorous regret that, in the innumerable circulars they all received daily, examples of verbal ‘mistiness and grandiloquence' were ‘as plentiful as blackberries', and argued for a new style of official writing, both friendly and easy to understand. These comments caught the attention of Whitehall, and three years later the Treasury invited him to produce a training manual for civil servants on the art of writing plain English.

The slim volume that Gowers first produced on the subject was deemed by those who had commissioned it to be a success, so much so that the idea was mooted that it should now be published as a book for general sale. Gowers was offered a flat fee of £500—normal for the time and even generous by Treasury standards. But he demurred, turning for advice to his old friend A. S. Watt, the literary agent with whom he had worked secretly on propaganda during the First World War. With Watt's encouragement, Gowers asked instead for a royalty. The Treasury was enormously displeased by what would come to be characterised as his wish to have a ‘flutter'. Letters went back and forth. Acid remarks were scribbled in the margins of file notes. When at last Gowers won the day, the decision was unprecedented. One of those negotiating with him wrote to him in a letter, ‘Like you,
I hate arguments about money—although I must admit you do it frightfully well'.

Plain Words
was first published in April 1948 by His Majesty's Stationery Office, which crucially had access to paper supplies. By Christmas the book had gone through seven reprints, selling more than 150,000 copies. The Treasury, surprised and encouraged by this, asked Gowers to write a new book, an
ABC
of Plain Words
, designed as a reference manual with its entries arranged in alphabetical order. When this work came out in 1951, it too was a success, again taking the Treasury by surprise. Nearly 80,000
copies sold in the first year alone, even as the earlier work continued to sell: by this point Gowers's ‘flutter' had netted him roughly ten times the sum the Treasury had first offered. But though the
ABC
did well, Gowers was unhappy with its layout, believing it to be an awkward fit with his more discursive notes on style. The best answer, all agreed, would be to find a way to combine the
ABC
with the original
Plain Words
, creating a new book under the title
The Complete Plain Words
. When this third, definitive version of Gowers's work came out in 1954, it was yet again swiftly a bestseller, rapidly taking the total sale of the ‘Plain Words' titles to well over half a million copies. Remarkably, it has remained in print ever since.

Taxes
, May 1948

In 1951, after an approach from Oxford University Press, Gowers agreed in principle to be ‘a sort of ganger' overseeing a party of workers engaged in the monumental task of revising Henry Fowler's idiosyncratic classic,
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
. After hesitations that lasted half a decade, OUP went further and asked Gowers to be the editor. He accepted this commission at the age of seventy-six and finished the job when he was eighty-five. A year after his edition of Fowler was published, Gowers died of throat cancer caused by a lifetime of smoking. Not long before, however, in an interview with the
New Yorker
, he remarked with typical good humour that although living such a long life was ‘all rather deplorable', his recent labours had given him ‘rather the sensation'—an agreeable one, he admitted—that he would be going out with ‘a bang'.
*

BOOK: Plain Words
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