The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 3: The Elements

Essentially style resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than yourself — of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head ... So (says Fénelon ) ... 'your words will he fewer and more effectual, and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable'.

Quiller-Cough, The Art of Writing

Having thus cleared the decks we can return to the various other purposes for which official writing has to be used. The relative importance of these, in quantity at any rate, has been changed by the immense volume of modern social legislation and the innumerable statutory controls necessitated by the war and its consequences. Official writing used to consist mostly of departmental minutes and instructions, inter-departmental correspondence, and despatches to Governors and Ambassadors. These things still have their places. But in volume they must have been left far behind by the vast output now necessary for explaining the law to the public. The man in the street is still supposed to know the law without being told, and ignorance is no excuse for breaking it. That was all very well in the days when he had little more concern with the law than an obligation to refrain from committing the crimes prohibited by the decalogue; he had then no need to have its niceties explained to him. Today his daily life is conditioned by an infinity of statutory rights and obligations. Even if the laws that define them were short, simple and intelligible, their number alone would prevent him from discovering by his own study what those rights and obligations were.

Consider for instance the small shopkeeper. Like everyone else, he must have a working knowledge of the legislation governing his and his employees' tax liability, and of those that determine his and their duties and rights in respect of the National Health and Insurance Services. But that for him is only the beginning. He must also know that, on pain of committing a criminal offence, he must not (subject to certain rather complicated exceptions) keep his shop open later than a certain hour on four days in the week, a different hour on the fifth, and yet a different one on the sixth, or open it at all on Sundays; that he must give his assistants a half-holiday every week; that, if an assistant is under 18, his hours of work are limited by statute and his right to a weekly half-holiday is slightly different; that if the assistant is a girl she must be given a seat and allowed to sit on it; that the ventilation, lighting and temperature of his shop, as well as its sanitary accommodation, must at all times be "suitable and sufficient", and that if he sells food he must take various precautions against its becoming contaminated. That is a lot to expect anyone to learn for himself from a study of the statutes at large. The same is true of almost every walk of life.

The official must be the interpreter. Now this is a task as delicate as it is difficult. An official interpreting the law is looked on with suspicion. It is for the legislature to make the laws, for the executive to administer them, and for the judiciary to interpret them. The official must avoid all appearance of encroaching on the province of the Courts. For this reason it used to be a rule in the Service that when laws were brought to the notice of those affected by them the actual words of the statute must be used; in no other way could the official be sure of escaping all imputation of putting his own interpretation on the law. Here then we have a dilemma. If the official is tied to the words of the law, and if, as we have seen, the words of the law must be obscure in order to be precise, how is the man in the street to be helped to understand it?

No doubt much can be done by selection and arrangement, even though the words used are those of the Act. But something more than that is needed to carry out the exhortation given by a President of the Board of Trade to his staff:

Let us get away entirely from the chilly formalities of the old-style correspondence which seemed to come from some granite monolith rather than from another human being.

And so the old rule has yielded to the pressure of events. It never was quite so important as it was made out to be, if only because, in most of the subjects that call particularly for simple explanation, a protection from bureaucracy readier than recourse to the Courts is given to the citizen. In theory he was amply protected by the Courts as the sole authoritative interpreter of the law. But in practice the man of small means will suffer much rather than embark on legal proceedings which the State, for the sake of the principle involved in them, may think it necessary to take to the House of Lords. For this reason over 50 years ago Pitt tempered the first Income Tax Act by providing that assessments were to be made not by officials but by local committees of taxpayers. This precedent was followed in the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, the National Insurance and Unemployment Insurance Acts of 1912, and all modern social legislation. In all these things the ordinary citizen has a ready means of securing, without any expense, that the exact nature of his rights and duties are defined neither by an official nor by the Courts but by a body of his fellow citizens.

This has lessened the need of the official to adhere scrupulously to the words of an Act at a time when he finds it more and more difficult to be helpful otherwise than by departing from them. A new technique is being developed for those pamphlets and leaflets that are necessary to explain the law to the man in the street in such matters as P.A.Y.E. and National Insurance. Its guiding principles are to use the simplest language and avoid technical terms, to employ the second person freely, not to try to give all the details of the law relevant to the subject, but to be content with stating the essentials, to explain, if these are stated in the writer's words and not the words of the Act, that they are an approximation only, to tell the reader where he can find fuller information and further advice, and always to make sure that he knows what are his rights of appeal. This technique is being closely studied in the Departments concerned by experts who have nothing to learn from me.

But there is another part of this subject: the answering of letters from individual correspondents about their own cases. These answers cannot be written, like the pamphlets and leaflets, by people who are experts both in the subject matter and in English composition, and here I shall have some advice to give. They need in some respects a special technique, but the principles of it are the same as those of all good writing, whatever its purpose. We have here in its most elementary form—though not on that account its least difficult—the problem of writing what one means and affecting one's reader precisely as one wishes. If therefore we begin our study of the problems of official English by examining the technique of this part of it, that will serve as a good introduction to the rest of the book, for it will bring out most of the points that we shall have to study more closely later. It is in this field of an official's duties more than in any other that good English can be defined simply as English which is readily understood by the reader. To be clear is to be efficient; to be obscure is to be inefficient. Your style of letter-writing is to be judged not by literary conventions or grammatical niceties but by whether it carries out efficiently the job you are paid to do.

But "efficiency" must be broadly interpreted. It connotes a proper attitude of mind towards your correspondent. He may not care about being addressed in literary English, but he will care very much about being treated with sympathy and understanding. It is not easy nowadays to remember anything so contrary to all appearances as that officials are the servants of the public; and the official must try not to foster the illusion that it is the other way round. So your style must not only be simple but also friendly, sympathetic and natural, appropriate to one who is a servant, not a master.

Let us now try to translate these generalities into some practical rules.

  1. Be sure that you know what your correspondent is asking before you begin to answer him. Study his letter carefully. If he is obscure, spare no trouble in trying to get at his meaning. If you conclude that he means something different from what he says (as he well may) address yourself to his meaning not to his words, and do not be clever at his expense. Get into his skin, and adapt the atmosphere of your letter to suit that of his. If he is troubled, be sympathetic. If he is rude, be specially courteous. If he is muddleheaded, be specially lucid. If he is pig-headed, be patient. If he is helpful, be appreciative. If he convicts you of a mistake, acknowledge it freely and even with gratitude. But never let a flavour of the patronising creep in as it did into this letter received by a passenger who had lost his ticket:

In the circumstances you have now explained, and the favourable enquiries made by me, I agree as a special case and without prejudice not to press for payment of the demand sent you... and you may consider the matter closed. I would however suggest that in future you should take greater care of your railway tickets to obviate any similar occurrence.

Follow the admirable advice given in this instruction by the Board of Inland Revenue to their staff:

There is one golden rule to hear in mind always: that we should try to put ourselves in the position of our correspondent, to imagine his feelings as he writes his letters, and to gauge his reaction as he receives ours. If we put ourselves in the other man's shoes we shall speedily detect how unconvincing our letters can seem, or how much we may be taking for granted.

  1. Begin by answering his question. Do not start by telling him the relevant law and practice, and gradually lead up to a statement of its application to his case. By doing this you keep him on tenterhooks and perhaps so befuddle him that by the time he gets to the end he is incapable of grasping what the answer is. Give him his answer briefly and clearly at the outset, and only then, if explanation is needed, begin your explanation. Thus he will know the worst, or the best, at once, and can skip the explanation if he likes.

  2. So far as possible, confine yourself to the facts of the case you are writing about. Avoid any general statement about the law. If you make one, you are likely to find yourself in this dilemma: that if you want to be strictly accurate you will have to use technical terms and legal diction that your correspondent will not understand, and if you want to be simple and intelligible you will have to qualify your statement so copiously with hedging phrases like normally, ordinarily, in most cases and with some exceptions, that your correspondent will think you are keeping something up your sleeve, and not being frank with him.

  3. Avoid a formal framework, if you can. This is a difficult subject and those who supervise correspondence of this kind are still groping for a satisfactory standard practice. How are we to "get away from the chilly formalities of the old style"?

Over the years when the "old style" became set, official correspondence consisted mostly of interdepartmental communications. Custom required, and still requires, these to be in form letters from the Permanent Head of one Department to his opposite number in another. They begin invariably with a mention of the subject about to be dealt with and of the letter, if any, that is being answered. The opening words of the letter must be "I am directed by (say) the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs", and throughout the letter turns of phrase must be used (e.g. "I am to ask you to submit to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury") which serve as reminders that, for present purposes, both he who writes and he who is written to are in themselves things of naught; they merely form a conduit along which the thoughts of their political chiefs may be exchanged. It is no doubt right that officials and the public should be reminded constantly that ministerial responsibility is the keystone of our democracy. But, however appropriate this style may be for formal letters on subjects about which the Minister may possibly have been personally consulted, it will not do for the sort of letter we are now concerned with. It is too flagrantly unreal; everyone knows that these letters are sent on the authority of comparatively junior officials, exercising a delegated responsibility within prescribed limits. Besides, it is quite impossible to weave into a framework of this sort the spirit of friendliness we have seen to be desirable.

There are two difficulties. One is how to start. The other is to whom to attribute the sentiments, opinions and decisions that the letter contains. As to the first, everyone's inclination is to follow tradition at least to the point of beginning all replies "In reply to (or 'with reference to') your letter of. . . ". That brings us to our first difficulty. If we are forbidden to follow our natural inclination to continue "I am directed", as we have seen we must be, how are we to go on?

In detail the possibilities are infinite, but the main forms are few. "I have (or 'I am') to inform you" used to be — perhaps still is — the most common. But it is unsatisfactory, not to say silly, with its mysterious suggestion of some compulsion working undisclosed in the background. "I would inform you" is another popular variant. It is passable, but not to be commended, for its archaic use of would in the sense of "I should like to" makes it stiff, as though one were to say "I would have you know". "I should inform you", in the sense of "it is my duty to inform you" is also tolerable and sometimes useful. But it will not do always; it is less suitable for beginning than for picking up something at the end ("I should add", "I should explain however"). "I beg to inform you" will not do. (See here[^11].) "I regret to inform you" and "I am glad to inform you" will do nicely when there is anything to be glad or sorry about but that is not always. "In reply to your letter . . . I wish to inform you" (which I have seen) is crushingly stiff; this also is almost like saying "I would have you know". The passive ("you are informed") has an aloofness that ought to rule it out. There remains the device of plunging straight into saying what you have to say without any introductory words. But this will not do as a continuation of "In reply to your letter". What is in reply to the letter is not the information but the giving of it. It is nonsense to say

In reply to your letter of ... the Income Tax Law on personal allowances has been changed

Must we then conclude that in this type of letter we ought to abandon the stock opening "In reply to your letter" unless we can continue naturally with "I am glad to tell you", or "I am sorry to have to tell you", or some such phrase? Perhaps. Nothing would be lost. There are plenty of other ways of beginning that will not lead us into the same difficulties. The trouble about "In reply to your letter" is that it forms the beginning of a sentence which we must finish somehow. If we turn it into a complete sentence we shake off those shackles.

This must be done with discretion; some attempts are unfortunate. For instance:

With reference to your claim. I have to advise you that before same is dealt with ...

There is no need to start with an ejaculatory and verbless clause. All that was needed was to begin: "Before I can deal with your claim". Or again:

Your letter is acknowledged, and the following would appear to be the position.

Receipt of your letter is acknowledged. It is pointed out...

Here again is the inhuman third person. A better way of saying what these two were trying to say is

Thank you for your letter. The position is (or the facts are) as follows...

I believe that a common opening formula during the war was:

Your letter of the ... about ... We really cannot see our way...

I am told that this is fortunately dying out, perhaps because it is becoming less difficult to see our way.

Another not very happy effort is:

I refer to recent correspondence and to the form which you have completed...

There is a faint air of bombast about this: it vaguely recalls Pistol's way of talking ("I speak of Africa and golden joys"). Probably "Thank you for the completed form" would have been an adequate opening.

There are however many possible ways of turning "with reference to your letter" into a complete sentence without getting ourselves into trouble.

I have received your letter of...

Thank you for your letter of...

I am writing to you in reply to your letter of...

You wrote to me on such-and-such a subject.

I have looked into the question of ... about which you wrote to me.

and so on. All enable you to say what you have to say as a direct statement without any preliminary words like "I have to say" or "I would say".

There remains the second question. To whom are you to attribute the opinions and decisions which, having got over the first hurdle, you then proceed to deliver? In a large and increasing class of letters the answer is simple. These are the letters sent from those provincial offices of a Ministry that are in the charge of an official who has a recognised status and title and who signs the letters himself. Such are Inspectors of Taxes, Collectors of Customs, the Regional Controllers of various Departments, Telephone Managers and others. Everyone knows that these officers exercise a delegated authority; those who draft the letters for them to sign can use the first person, and all is plain sailing.

But a great many letters, sent from other branches of Government Departments, are signed not by someone of known status and authority, but by some unknown person in the hierarchy, who may or may not have consulted higher authority before signing; that is a matter of domestic organisation within the Department and is nobody else's business. To whom are the opinions and decisions conveyed in these letters to be attributed? It cannot be the Minister himself; we have ruled that out. There are four other possibilities. One is that the letter should be written in the first person, and that the official who signs it should boldly accept responsibility. The second is that responsibility should be spread by the use of the first person plural. The third is that it should be further diluted by attributing the decisions and opinions to "the Department". The fourth is that responsibility should be assigned to a quarter mystically remote by the use throughout of the impersonal passive. To illustrate what I mean, let us take what must to-day be a common type of letter, one turning down an application:

I have considered your application and do not think you have made out a case.

We have considered your application and do not think you have made out a case.

The Department has (or have) considered your application and does (or do) not think you have made out a case.

Your application has been considered and it is not thought that you have made out a case.

I cannot pretend to be an authoritative guide on the comparative merits of these; no doubt every Department makes its own rules. But there are three things that seem to me important.

First, in letters written in the first person be careful to avoid giving the impression that an all-powerful individual is signifying his pleasure. If the letter grants what is asked for, do not say that you are making a "concession". If it refuses a request never say, as in the example given, I do not think you have made out a case. Imply that your duty is not yourself to be your correspondent's judge, but merely to decide how the case before you fits into the instructions under which you work.

Secondly, it is a mistake to mix these methods in one letter unless there is good reason for it. If you choose an impersonal method, such as "the Department", you may of course need to introduce the first person for personal purposes such as "I am glad" or "I am sorry" or "I should like you to call here", "I am glad to say that the Department has . ". But do not mix the methods merely for variety, saying 1 in the first paragraph, we in the second, the Department in the third and it is in the fourth. Choose one and stick to it.

Thirdly, do not use the impersonal passive, with its formal unsympathetic phrases such as "it is felt", "it is regretted", "it is appreciated". Your correspondent wants to feel that he is dealing with human beings, not with robots. How feeble is the sentence, "It is thought you will now have received the form of agreement" compared with "I expect you will have received the form of agreement by now".

  1. Be careful to say nothing that might give your correspondent the impression, however mistakenly, that you think it right that he should be put to trouble in order to save you from it. Do not use paper stamped "Date as postmark". This will be read by many recipients as meaning:

I am much too important and busy a person to remember what the date is or to put it down if I did; so if you want to know you must pick the envelope out of the wastepaper basket, if you can find it, and read the date on the postmark, if you can decipher it. It is better that you should do this than that I should be delayed in my work even for a moment.

Do not ask him to give you over again information he has already given you unless there is some good reason for doing so, and, if there is, explain the reason. Otherwise he will infer that you think it proper that he should have to do what is perhaps quite a lot of work to save you the trouble of turning up a back file.1

  1. Use no more words than are necessary to do the job. Superfluous words waste your time and official paper, tire your reader and obscure your meaning. There is no need, for instance, to begin each paragraph with phrases like I am further to point out, I would also add, you will moreover observe. Go straight to what you have to say, without precautionary words, and then say it in as few words as are needed to make your meaning clear.

  2. Keep your sentences short. This will help both you to think clearly and your correspondent to take your meaning. If you find you have slipped into long ones, split them up.

If he was not insured on reaching the age of 65 he does not become insured by reason of any insurable employment which he takes up later, and the special contributions which are payable under the Act by his employer only, in respect of such employment, do not give him any title to health insurance benefits or pension, and moreover a man is not at liberty to pay any contributions on his own account as a voluntary contributor for any period after his 65th birthday.

This sentence is a long one. It contains three statements of fact linked by the conjunction and. Because this is its form the reader is never quite sure until he has read further whether any of these statements has been completed, and he probably has not taken any of them in when he has finished. He then re-reads the sentence and picks up the statements one by one. If they had been separated by fullstops (after later and pension) and the ands omitted, he would have grasped each at first reading. The fullstops would have seemed to say to him:

Have you got that? Very well; now I'll tell you something else

  1. Be compact; do not put a strain on your reader's memory by widely separating parts of a sentence that are closely related to one another. Why, for instance, is this sentence difficult to grasp on first reading?

A deduction of tax may be claimed in respect of any person whom the individual maintains at his own expense, and who is (i) a relative of his, or of his wife, and incapacitated by old age or infirmity from maintaining himself or herself, or (ii) his or his wife's widowed mother, whether incapacitated or not, or (iii) his daughter who is resident with him and upon whose services he is compelled to depend by reason of old age or infirmity.

The structure of the sentence is too diffuse; the reader has to keep in mind the opening words all the way through. It ends by telling him that a deduction of tax may be claimed "in respect of any person whom the individual maintains at his own expense and who is his daughter", but "his daughter" is separated from "who is" by no fewer than 32 words. This sentence, taken from a leaflet of Income Tax instructions, was later rewritten, and now runs as follows:

If you maintain a relative of yourself or your wife who is unable to work because of old age or infirmity, you can claim an allowance of ... .You can claim this allowance if you maintain your widowed mother, or your wife's widowed mother, whether she is unable to work or not. If you maintain a daughter who lives with you because you or your wife are old or infirm, you can claim an allowance of...

Why is the new version so much easier to grasp than the old? Partly it is because a sentence of 81 words has been split into three, each making a statement complete in itself. But it is also because a device has been employed that is a most useful one when an official writer has to say, as he so often has, that such-and-such a class of people who have such-and-such attributes, and perhaps such-and-such other attributes, have such-and-such rights or obligations. The device is to use conditional clauses in the second person instead of relative clauses in the third—to say: if you belong to such-and-such a class of people, and if you have such-and-such attributes, you have such-and-such a right or obligation. The advantage of this is that it avoids the wide separation of the main verb from the main subject; the subject you comes immediately next to the verb it governs, and in this way you announce unmistakably to your reader:

I have finished describing the class of people about whom I have something to tell you, and I shall now say what I have to tell you about them.

  1. Do not say more than is necessary. The feeling that prompts you to tell your correspondent everything when explaining is commendable, but you will often help him more by resisting it, and confining yourself to the facts that will enable him to understand what has happened.

I regret however that the Survey Officer who is responsible for the preliminary investigation as to the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by any applicant has reported that owing to a shortage of a spare pair of wires to the underground cable (a pair of wires leading from the point near your house right back to the local exchange and thus a pair of wires essential for the provision of telephone service for you) is lacking and that therefore it is a technical impossibility to install a telephone for you at...

This explanation is obscure partly because the sentence is too long, partly because the long parenthesis has thrown the grammar out of gear, and partly because the writer, with the best intentions, says far more than is necessary even for a thoroughly polite and convincing explanation. It might have run thus:

I am sorry to have to tell you that we have found that there is no spare pair of wires on the cable that would have to he used to connect your house with the exchange. I fear therefore that it is impossible to install a telephone for you.

  1. Explain technical terms in simple words. You will soon become so familiar with the technical terms of the law you are administering that you will feel that you have known them all your life, and may forget that to others they are unintelligible. Of this fault I can find no English example to equal the American one already quoted:

The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned to you for your service-connected disability is confirmed and continued.

This means, I understand, that the veteran to whom it is addressed has been judged to be still not entitled to a disability pension.

I am indebted for the following example to a friend in the Board of Inland Revenue, who also supplies the comment.


I have pleasure in enclosing a cheque for £..., a supplementary repayment for... . This is accounted for by the fact that in calculating the untaxed interest assessable the interest on the loan from Mr. X was treated as untaxed, whereas it should have been regarded as received in full out of taxed sources—any liability thereon being fully satisfied. The treatment of this loan interest from the date of the first payment has been correct—i.e. tax charged at the full standard rate on Mr. X and treated in your hands as a liability fully satisfied before receipt.


There is matter for an essay in this letter! The occasion was the issue of an unexpected cheque, and the sender thought that some kind of an explanation was needed to reassure the recipient. It is a very difficult matter to explain, very technical, and an honest attempt has been made. The major fault is one of over-explanation, in technical language.

What the occasion called for was a simple explanation of the fact, and not a complete justification of the whole process. If the writer had said:

In calculating the amount of repayment due to you, the interest you received on the money you lent to Mr. X was included in those items of your income which had not already been taxed. This was wrong. Mr. X has paid the tax on this interest, and you are not liable to pay tax on it again,

then the recipient would have been satisfied. The writer could add: 'We did not make this mistake in earlier years, and you have been repaid all the tax due to you for those years', instead of his last sentence. 'Treated in your hands as a liability' is a queer way of describing an asset, and the loan was, of course, to Mr. X, not from him. 'Interest-on-the-loan' is treated confusingly as a composite noun."

  1. Do not use what have been called the "dry meaningless formulae" of commercialese. Against some of these a warning is not needed: officials do not write your esteemed favour to hand or address their correspondents as your good self. But some of these formulae occasionally appear. Same is used as a pronoun (on which see later), enclosed please find is preferred to I enclose, and foolish begs are common. The use of beg in this way is presumably to be accounted for by a false analogy with the reasonable use of I beg as a polite introduction to a contradiction, "I beg to differ", that is "I beg your leave to differ". There is no reason why one should apologise, however faintly, for acknowledging a letter or remaining an obedient servant. Per should not be permitted to get too free with the English language. Such convenient abbreviations as m.p.h. and r.p.m. are no doubt with us for good. But generally it is well to confine per to its own language — e.g. per cent, per capita, per stirpes, per contra, and not to prefer per day to a day, or per passenger train to by passenger train, or as per my letter to as I said in my letter.

Even for phrases in which per is linked to a Latin word, there are often English equivalents which serve at least as well, if not better. A letter can equally well be signed AB for CD as CD per pro AB. £100 a year is more natural than £100 per annum. Per se does not ordinarily mean anything more than by itself or in itself.

Another Latin word better left alone is re. This is the ablative case of the Latin word res. It means in the matter of. It is used by lawyers for the title of lawsuits, such as "in re: John Doe deceased ". It has passed into commercialese as an equivalent of the English preposition about. It has no business there, or in officialese. It is not needed either in a heading ("re your application for a permit"), which can stand without its support, or in the body of a letter, where an honest about will serve your purpose better. Avoid that ugly and unnecessary symbol and/or when writing letters; it is fit only for forms and lists and specifications and things of that sort. It can always be dispensed with. Instead of writing (say) "soldiers and/or sailors" we can write "soldiers or sailors or both". Finally, the widespread dislike now felt for commercialese seems to extend to inst, ult and prox, and there is no obvious reason for preferring these Latin abbreviations to the name of the month, which is also capable of abbreviation and has the advantage over them of conveying an immediate and certain meaning.

A correspondent has sent me the following example of the baleful influence of commercialese:

Payment of the above account, which is now overdue at the date hereof, appears to have been overlooked, and I shall be glad to have your remittance by return of post, and oblige.

Yours faithfully,

The superfluous at the date hereof must have been prompted by a feeling that now by itself was not formal enough and needed dressing up. The word oblige is grammatically in mid-air. It has no subject, and is firmly cut off by a full stop from what might have been supposed to be its object, the writer's signature.

The fault of commercialese is that its mechanical use has a bad effect on both writer and reader — the writer because it deadens his appreciation of the meaning of words, the reader because he feels that the writer's approach to him lacks sincerity.

  1. Use words with precise meanings rather than vague ones. Since, as we have seen, you will not be doing your job properly unless you make your meaning readily understood, this is an elementary duty. Yet habitual disregard of it is the commonest cause of the abuse and raillery directed against what is called officialese. Every entrant into the service comes equipped with a vocabulary of common words of precise meaning adequate for all ordinary purposes. But when he begins to write as an official he has a queer trick of forgetting them and relying mainly on a smaller vocabulary of less common words with a less precise meaning. It is a curious fact that in the official's armoury of words the weapons readiest to hand are weapons not of precision but of rough and ready aim; often, indeed, they are of a sort that were constructed as weapons of precision but have been bored out by him into blunderbusses2. They have been put in the front rank of the armoury; he reaches out for a word and uses one of these without troubling to search in the ranks behind for one that is more likely to hit the target in the middle. For instance, the blunderbuss integrate is now kept in front of join, combine, amalgamate, coordinate and other words, and the hand stretching out for one of these gets no farther. Develop blocks the way to happen, occur, take place and come. Alternative (a converted weapon of precision) stands before many simple words such as different, other, new, fresh, revised. Realistic is in front of others, such as sensible, reasonable, practicable, workable and feasible. Involve throws a whole section of the armoury into disuse, though not so big a one as that threatened by overall; and rack upon rack of simple prepositions are left untouched because before them are kept the blunderbusses of vague phrases such as in relation to, in regard to, in connexion with and in the case of.

It may be said that it is generally easy enough to guess what is meant. But you have no business to leave your reader guessing at your meaning, even though the guess may be easy. That is not doing your job properly. If you make a habit of not troubling to choose the right weapon of precision you may be sure that sooner or later you will set your reader a problem that is past guessing.

  1. If two words convey your meaning equally well, choose the common one rather than the less common. Here again official tendency is in the opposite direction, and you must be on your guard. Do not prefer regarding, respecting or concerning to about, or say advert for refer, or state, inform or acquaint when you might use the word say or tell. Inform is a useful word, but it seems to attract adverbs as prim as itself sometimes almost menacing. In kindly inform me the politeness rings hollow; all it does is to put a frigid and magisterial tone into your request. Perhaps you will inform me means generally that you have got to inform me, and no "perhaps" about it, and I suspect the consequences may be serious for you. Furthermore is a prosy word used too often. It may be difficult to avoid it in cumulative argument (moreover. . . in addition . . . too ... also.. again . . . furthermore) but prefer one of the simpler words if they have not all been used up. Do not say hereto, herein, hereof, herewith, hereunder, or similar compounds with there unless, like therefore, they have become part of everyday language. Most of them put a flavour of legalism into any document in which they are used. Use a preposition and pronoun instead. For instance:

With reference to the second paragraph thereof. (With reference to its second paragraph.)

I have received your letter and thank you for the information contained therein. (contained in it.)

I am to ask you to explain the circumstances in which the gift was made and to forward any correspondence relative thereto. (...any correspondence about it.)

To take a few more examples of unnecessary choice of stilted expressions, do not say predecease for die before, ablution facilities for wash basins, it is apprehended that for I suppose, capable of locomotion for able to walk, will you be good enough to advise me for please tell me, I have endeavoured to obtain the required information for I have tried to find out what you wanted to know, it will be observed from a perusal of for you will see by reading. The reason why it is wrong for you to use these starchy words is not that they are bad English; most of them are perfectly good English in their proper places. The reason is twofold. First, some of the more unusual of them may actually be outside your correspondent's vocabulary and convey no meaning at all to him. Secondly, their use runs counter to your duty to show that officials are human. These words give the reader the impression that officials are not made of common clay but are, in their own estimation at least, beings superior and aloof. They create the wrong atmosphere; the frost once formed by a phrase or two of this sort is not easily melted. If you turn back to the example given under Rule 8 you will see how careful the writer of the revised version has been about this. The word individual (a technical term of income tax law to distinguish between a personal taxpayer and a corporate one) was unnecessary and has disappeared. Deduction of tax is translated into allowance, incapacitated into unable to work, is resident with into lives with, and by reason of old age or infirmity into because you are old or infirm.

Here is an example of words deliberately and effectively chosen for their simplicity:

If a worker's clothing is destroyed beyond all hope of repair by an accident on his job his employer can apply to us for the coupons needed to replace it. This does not mean of course that anyone can get coupons if his boots fall to pieces through ordinary wear or if he just gets a tear in his trousers.

"If he just gets a tear in his trousers" not only conveys a clearer meaning than (say) "If his garments suffer comparatively minor damage and are capable of effective reconditioning". It also creates a different atmosphere. The reader feels that the writer is a human being and not a mere cog in the bureaucratic machine—almost that he might be quite a good chap.

In the same way these opening words of a booklet issued by the Ministry of Agriculture for farmers are well calculated to make the reader feel that here is someone who knows what he is talking about and can explain it to others:

WHY KEEP BOOKS? There are several very good reasons why the farmer, busy man as he is, should keep proper records of his business. It is the only way in which he can find out how much profit he has made, and how one year's profit compares with another. It helps him to manage his farm efficiently, and shows him how the various operations compare in outlay and in receipts.

I have called this chapter "The Elements" because in it I have suggested certain elementary rules—"be short, be simple, be human"—for officials to follow in the duties that I have described as "explaining the law to the millions". The rules apply no less to official writing of other kinds, and they will be elaborated in Chapters 5 to 8, in which much of what has been said in this chapter will be expanded. I can claim no novelty for my advice. Similar precepts were laid down for the Egyptian Civil Service some thousands of years ago:

Be courteous and tactful as well as honest and diligent. All your doings are publicly known, and must therefore be beyond complaint or criticism. Be absolutely impartial. Always give a reason for refusing a plea; complainants like a kindly hearing even more than a successful Plea. Preserve dignity but avoid inspiring fear. Be an artist in words, that you may be strong, for the tongue is a sword...

If we may judge from the following letter, those brought up in this tradition succeeded in avoiding verbiage. The letter is from a Minister of Finance to a senior civil servant:

Appollonius to Zeno, greeting. You did right to send the chickpeas to Memphis. Farewell.

← Chapter 2: A Digression on Legal English

Chapter 4: Correctness →

  1. It does not seem to me to be reasonable that anyone who asks for something to which he is legally entitled should he required to do more than to provide once, and once only, the information necessary to establish his right. To demand that forms shall be furnished in triplicate, or that an applicant, having written his name, address and identity number in Section A, should write them again in Section B, is to force a member of the public to act as unpaid copyist for some one whom he pays to do that sort of thing for him. But that reflection takes me outside the scope of this book.↩︎

  2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this word as

    "A short gun with a large bore, firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim".