The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 4: Correctness

My Lord, I do here, in the name of all the learned and polite persons of the nation, complain to Your Lordship as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the pretenders so polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities: and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar.


We will now turn to the implications of the remark I made [during Chapter 1]:

Lapses from what for the time being is regarded as correct irritate the educated reader, and distract his attention; and so make him less likely to be 'affected precisely as you wish'.

We shall have to add a fourth rule to the three with which we finished the last chapter — be correct. It applies to both vocabulary and grammar; this chapter is concerned with vocabulary only, and grammar will be the subject of Chapter 9.

Correctness of vocabulary seems once to have been enforced more sternly on officials than it is now. More than two centuries ago the Secretary to the Commissioners of Excise wrote this letter to the Supervisor of Pontefract.

The Commissioners on perusal of your Diary observe that you make use of many affected phrases and incongruous words, such as "illegal procedure", "harmony", etc.. all of which you use in a sense that the words do not bear. I am ordered to acquaint you that if you hereafter continue that affected and schoolboy way of writing, and to murder the language in such a manner, you will be discharged for a fool.

Quoted in Humour in the Civil Service, by John Aye. Universal Publications, 1928

To us the punishment seems disproportionate to the offence, though the same penalty today might prove gratifying to those who think we have too many officials. But we can have nothing but admiration for the sentiment of the letter or for the vigorous directness of its phrasing. It serves moreover to illustrate a difficulty presented by this precept. What is correctness, and who is to be the judge of it? It cannot be the same now as it was then. A Collector of Customs and Excise today might certainly use the expression "illegal procedure" without being called in question; he might even refer to the harmony of his relations with the Trade without running much risk. On the other hand it would not do for him to say, as the Supervisor of Pontefract might have said, that the Local Bench were an indifferent body, meaning that they performed their duties with impartiality, or that he prevented the arrival of his staff at his office, meaning that he always got there first.

English is not static—neither in vocabulary nor in grammar, nor yet in that elusive quality called style. The fashion in prose alternates between the ornate and the plain, the periodic and the colloquial. Grammar and punctuation defy all the efforts of grammarians to force them into the mould of a permanent code of rules. Old words drop out or change their meanings; new words are admitted. What was stigmatised by the purists of one generation as a corruption of the language may a few generations later be accepted as an enrichment, and what was then common currency may have become a pompous archaism or acquired a new significance.

Eminent men with a care for the language, from Dean Swift to Lord Wavell, have from time to time proposed that an Authority should be set up to preserve what is good and resist what is bad.

They will find [said Swift,] many words that deserve to be utterly thrown out of the language, many more to be corrected, and perhaps not a few long since antiquated, which ought to be restored on account of their energy and sound.

Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English Tongue.

They should issue [said Lord Wavell,] a monthly journal of words that required protection and a pillory of misused words, and so on.

Letter from Lord Wavell to Mr. Ivor Brown quoted in Ivor Brown's Book of Words.

Swift's plea, which was made in the form of a letter to the Lord Treasurer, came to nothing. This, Lord Chesterfield drily observed, was not surprising,

precision and perspicuity not being in general the favourite objects of Ministers.

Dr. Johnson though the task hopeless:

Academies have been instituted to guard the avenues of the languages, to retain fugitives and to repulse invaders; but their vigilance and activity have been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints, to enchain syllables and to lash the wind are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

In our own day we have seen a Society for Pure English, with leaders as eminent as Henry Bradley, Robert Bridges and Logan Pearsall Smith, inviting the support of all those who

...would preserve all the richness of differentiation in our vocabulary, its nice grammatical usages and its traditional idioms, but would oppose whatever is slipshod and careless and all blurring of hard-won distinctions, and oppose no less the tyranny of schoolmasters and grammarians, both in their pedantic conservatism and in their enforcing of new-fangled rules.

—but it is now defunct.

Dr. Johnson was right, as usual. One has only to look at the words proposed by Swift for inclusion in his Index Expurgatorius to realise how difficult, delicate and disappointing it is to resist new words and new meanings. He condemns, for instance, sham, banter, mob, bully and bamboozle. A generation later Dr. Johnson called clever a "low word" and fun and stingy "low cant". Should we not have been poorer if Swift and Johnson had had their way with these? There is no saying how things will go. The fight for admission to the language is quickly won by some assailants and long resistance is maintained against others. The word that excited Swift to greatest fury was mob, a contraction of mobile vulgus. Its victory was rapid and complete. So was that of banter and bamboozle, which he found hardly less offensive. And if rep for reputation proved ephemeral, and phiz for physiognomy never emerged from slang status, and is now dead, that is not because Swift denounced them, but because public opinion disliked them or got tired of them. Nice in the sense in which it is ordinarily used today in conversation has not yet established itself in literary English, though we know from the rather priggish lecture that Henry Tilney gave to Catherine Morland about it in Northanger Abbey that it was trying to get over the barrier more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Reliable was long opposed on the curious ground that it was an impossible construction; an adjective formed from rely could only be reli-on-able. I remember noticing as a junior in the India Office many years ago that John Morley as Secretary of State struck it out of a draft dispatch and wrote in trustworthy. That must have been almost the last shot fired at it. The objection to it was a survival of the curious theory, widely held in pre-Fowler days, and not yet wholly exorcised, that no sentence could be "good grammar", and no word a respectable word, if its construction violated logic or reason. (I shall have more to say about this reign of pedantry when we consider grammar in Chapter 9.) It is not the habit of the English to refrain from doing anything merely because it is illogical; in any case it was less illogical to accept reliable than to strain at it after swallowing available and objectionable.

Some words gatecrash irresistibly because their sound is so appropriate to the meaning they are trying to acquire. Spiv is a recent example. Blurb, Professor Weekley tells us, was described by Robert Bridges as "an admirable word, quite indispensable". Haver does not mean vacillate (it means blather), but almost everyone south of the Border thinks it does: there is no withstanding its suggestion of simultaneous hovering and wavering. The dictionaries do not yet recognise this, but doubtless they will soon bow to the inevitable; for, as Sir Alan Herbert has reminded us,

modern dictionaries are pusillanimous works, preferring feebly to record what has been done than to say what ought to be done.1

Vidkun Quisling won instant admission to the company of the immortals who, like the Earl of Sandwich, Mr. Joseph Aloysius Hansom, General Shrapnel and Captain Boycott, have given their names to enrich the language. There has been stout resistance against certain words that attacked the barrier in the nineteenth century with powerful encouragement from Dickens — mutual, individual, phenomenal and aggravate. Mutual in the sense of common, pertaining to both parties, as in Our Mutual Friend, goes back to the sixteenth century, according to the O.E.D., but is "now regarded as incorrect". Perhaps the reason why it is so difficult to restrain the word to its "correct" meaning is the ambiguity of common. "Our common friend" might be taken as a reflection on the friend's manners or birth. The use of individual that is unquestionably correct is to distinguish a single person from a collective body, as it is used in the Income Tax Acts to distinguish between a personal taxpayer and a corporate one. But its use as a facetious term of disparagement (like the French individu) used to be common and still lingers. That was how Mr. Jorrocks understood it when Mr. Martin Moonface described him as an "unfortunate individual", and provoked the retort "You are another individual". Phenomenal to the purists means nothing more than "perceptible to the sense", and a phenomenon is an occurrence so perceptible; they would say that Mr. Vincent Crummles ought to have called his daughter not "the infant phenomenon" but "the juvenile prodigy". Over aggravate the long-drawn-out struggle still continues between those who, like Dickens, use it in the sense of annoy and those who would confine it to its original sense of make worse. About all these words the issue is still in the balance, but as aggravating for annoying and phenomenal for prodigious have unimpeachable contemporary authority — the one of Professor Trevelyan and the other of Professor Weekley — these two at least may claim victory to be in sight.2

Today the newcomers are mostly from the inventive and colourful minds of the Americans. The gates have been opened wide for them by film, radio, television and comic. We have changed our outlook since Dean Alford declared eighty years ago that the way the Americans corrupted our language was all of a piece with the character of that nation "with its blunted sense of moral obligation and duty to men". Yet we still have defenders of our tongue who scrutinise these immigrants very closely. That is as it should be, for some of them are certainly undesirables. But we ought not to forget how greatly our language has been enriched by the vigorous word-making habit of the Americans. Bridges' tribute to blurb might be applied to other more recent acquisitions, gatecrasher, debunk, cold war, baby-sitter, stockpile, bulldoze, commuter and many others. Nor do I see why anyone should turn up his nose at teenager, for it fills a gap usefully. We have no word that covers both sexes in what it is fashionable to call that "age-bracket", except adolescents, which vaguely suggests what I believe the psychologists call "imbalance", juveniles, which has been tainted by its association with delinquency, and young persons, which, though adopted by the law, retains a flavour of primness inappropriate to the young person of today: we are no longer in danger of feeling, as Mr. Podsnap did, that

the question about everything was, would it bring a blush to the cheek of the young person?

But these things are matters of taste, and one's own taste is of no importance unless it happens to reflect the general.

It is around new verbs that the battle now rages most hotly. New verbs are ordinarily formed in one of three ways, all of which have in the past been employed to create useful additions to our vocabulary. The first is the simple method of treating a noun as a verb; it is one of the beauties of our language that nouns can be so readily converted into adjectives or verbs. This was the origin, for instance, of the verb question. The second is what is called "back-formation", that is to say, forming from a noun the sort of verb from which the noun might have been formed if the verb had come first. In this way the verb diagnose was formed from diagnosis. The third is to add ise3 to an adjective, as sterilise has been formed from sterile. All these methods are being used today with no little zest. New verbs for something that is itself new (like pressurise) cannot be gainsaid. Service is a natural and useful newcomer in an age when almost everyone keeps a machine of some sort that needs periodical attention. But it provides an interesting example of the way these new verbs take an ell, once you give them an inch. Service is already trying to oust serve, as in

A large number of depots of one sort or another will be required to service the town,


To enable a Local Authority to take advantage of this provision it is essential that sites should be available, ready serviced with roads and sewers.

The credentials of to contact are still in dispute between those who, like Sir Alan Herbert, think it a "loathsome" word and those who hold, with Ivor Brown, that it can claim indulgence on the ground that

there is no word which covers approach by telephone, letter and speech, and contact is self-explanatory and concise.

If I were to hazard a prophecy, it would be that contact will win, but for the present it still excites in some people the same feeling as used to be aroused by split infinitives, very pleased's and those kind of things in the days when the observance of grammarians' shibboleths was regarded as the test of good writing. So do feature, glimpse, position, sense and signature when used as verbs, though all have long since found their way into the dictionaries. So do the verbs loan, gift and author, though these were verbs centuries ago, and are only trying to come back again after a long holiday, spent by loan in America, by gift in Scotland and by author in oblivion. Whatever may be the fate of these, we shall not be disposed to welcome such a word as reaccessioned used by a librarian of a book once more available to subscribers. To underground (of electric cables) seems at first sight an unnecessary addition to our vocabulary of verbs when bury is available, but an editor to whom a protest was made retorted that bury would not have done because the cables were "live".

But these words are merely skirmishers. The main body of the invasion consists of verbs ending in ise.

There seems to be a notion [says Sir Alan Herbert,] that any British or American subject is entitled to take any noun or adjective, add ise to it, and say, "I have made a new verb. What a good boy am I."

Among those now nosing their way into the language are casualise (employ casual labour), civilianise (replace military staff by civil), diarise (enter in a diary), editorialise (make editorial comments on), finalise (put into final form), hospitalise (send to hospital), publicise (give publicity to), servicise (replace civilians by service-men), cubiclise (equip with cubicles), randomise (shuffle). All these except diarise are new enough not to have been included in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1933, or (except hospitalise) in the 1928 edition of Webster's International Dictionary. The reason for inventing them seems to be to enable us to say in one word what would otherwise need several.

Whether that will prove a valid passport time alone can show.4 If the words I have listed were all, they might eventually be swallowed, though with many wry faces. But they are by no means all; a glut of this diet is being offered to us (trialise, itinerise and reliableise are among the specimens sent to me), and we are showing signs of nausea. It is perhaps significant that at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II the word Inthroning was substituted for the first time for the word Inthronisation, used in all previous Coronations. This may be symptomatic of a revolt against the ugliness of ise and still more of isation, which Sir Alan Herbert has compared to lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.

Another popular way of making new words is to put de, dis or non at the beginning of a word in order to create one with an opposite meaning. De and dis are termed by the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) "living prefixes with privative force". "Living" is the right word; they have been living riotously of late. Anyone, it seems, can make a new verb by prefixing de to an existing one. Some years ago Sir Alan Herbert made a collection of some remarkable creations of this sort, and included them in his index expurgatorious of "septic verbs". Among them were debureaucratise, decontaminate, dedirt, dehumidify, deinsectize, deratizate, derestrict, dewater, dezincify.

Some of these, it is to be hoped, may prove to be freaks of an occasion and will be seen no more. But there is a class which has come to stay, whether we like it or not. This comprises decontaminate, derestrict and derequisition. Their origin is the same: they all denote the undoing of something the doing of which called for — or at any rate was given — a special term. If to affect with gas is to contaminate, to enforce a speed limit is to restrict, and to commandeer a house is to requisition, then the cancellation of those things will inevitably be decontaminate, derestrict and derequisition, whether we like it or not, and it is no use saying that they ought to be cleanse, exempt and release, or any other words that are not directly linked with their opposites. But some people will still wince on reading that the Ministry of Transport have decided to detrunk a road, as though it were an elephant, and on hearing that witnesses in a postponed trial have been dewarned.

Most of the new dis-words since the war have been invented by economists (several by The Economist itself). Disincentive and disinflation, received at first with surprised disapproval, seem to have quite settled down. It is recognised that the old-fashioned opposites of incentive and inflationdeterrent and deflation — will not do: we need special words for that particular form of deterrent that discourages men from working hard, and for that process of checking inflation which is something less than deflation. On the heels of these new arrivals come diseconomy and dissaving.

It would yield economies that would far outweigh the diseconomies that are the inevitable price of public ownership and giant size.

Some 13.4 million of the 22 million income earners ... kept their spending in such exact step with their incomes that they saved or dissaved less than £25 in that year.

Will these be accepted also on the ground that in the first no positive word — neither extravagance nor waste nor wastefulness would express the writer's meaning so well as diseconomies, and that in the second dissaved is the only way of expressing the opposite of saved without a clumsy periphrasis that would destroy the nice balance of the sentence. Perhaps; it is at least certain that these words spring from deliberate and provocative choice and not from mental indolence. What is deplorable is that so many of those who go in for the invention of opposites by means of "living prefixes with privative force" do not know when to stop. It becomes a disease. Disincentive replaces deterrent; then undisincentive ousts incentive, and then disincentive itself has to yield to non-undisincentive. No wonder Mr. G. V. Carey is moved to write to The Times:

I have long been waiting for somebody to dispel my growing bewilderment at the modern expression of affirmative and negative (or should I say "disaffirmative"?) in English. I had always imagined that the opposite of "harmony" was "discord", not "disharmony"; of "incentive", "deterrent"; and so on. But at the present rate of distortion of our language it looks as though we shall soon be talking about "black and disblack", "good and disgood".

In the "newspeak" which George Orwell pictured as the language of 1984 very bad has become doubleplusungood.

The same warning is needed about the prefix non. To put non in front of a word is a well-established way of creating a word with the opposite meaning. Non-appearance, non-combatant, nonconformist and non-existent are common examples. But the lazy habit of using non to turn any word upside-down, so as not to have the trouble of thinking of its opposite, is becoming sadly common. "Institutions for the care of the non-sick" presumably means something different from "institutions for the care of the healthy", but the difference is not apparent. Sir Alan Herbert remarked some years ago that no one would think of saying non-sober when he meant drunk. I cannot feel sure that that is still true. I should have said that this trick was of recent origin if Mr. G. M. Young had not sent me an eighty-year-old example of it that would hold its own against any modern rival. Sir John Simon, F.R.S., the eminent surgeon who later became a Government official, giving evidence before the Royal Commission on the Sanitary Laws in 1 869, referred to

...a disease hereditarily transmissible and spreading among the non-fornicative part of the population.

Mr. Young says he was surprised to come across this, because Simon was a man of culture and a friend of Ruskin.

It just shows [he adds unkindly,] what Whitehall can do.

Yet another favourite device for making new words is the suffix ee. This is an erratic suffix, not conforming wholly to any rule. But in its main type it serves to denote the object of a verb, generally the indirect object, as in assignee, referee and trustee, but sometimes the direct object, as in examinee, trainee and evacuee. It therefore makes for confusion of language if the suffix is used to form a word meaning the subject of the verb. Escapee is worse than useless; we already have escaper. When unskilled labour is used to "dilute" skilled labour, the unskilled ought to be called not dilutees, as they are officially termed, but dilutors. The skilled are the dilutees. Apart from misuse such as this, we are getting too many ee words; they are springing up like weeds. Their purpose seems to be the same as that of many of our new verbs: to enable us to use one word instead of several. But we have got on very well for quite a long time without such words as expellee, persecutee, awardee and amputee.

While the age-long practice of creating new words has quickened its tempo, so has the no less ancient habit of extending the meaning of established words. Here again we ought to examine the novelties on merits, without bias. The main test for both is whether the new word, or the new meaning, fills a need in the vocabulary. If it is trying to take a seat already occupied — as the new verbs decision and suspicion are squatting in the places of decide and suspect, and the enlarged meanings of anticipate and claim in those of expect and assert — they are clearly harming the language by "blurring hard-won distinctions". Still more are words like overall and involve open to that charge: they are claiming the seats of half a dozen or more honest words. But those that claim seats hitherto empty may deserve admittance. Stagger, for example, has recently enlarged its meaning both logically and usefully in such a phrase as staggered holidays. Deadline (originally a line around a military prison beyond which a prisoner might be shot) has done the same in taking over the task of signifying a limit of any sort beyond which it is not permissible to go. Nor do I see why purists should condemn the use of nostalgic not only for a feeling of homesickness but also by the emotion aroused by thinking of the days that are no more. An appeal to etymology is not conclusive. When a word starts straying from its derivative meaning it may often be proper, and sometimes even useful, to try to restrain it; there are many now who would like to restrain the wanderlust of alibi and shambles. The ignorant misuse of technical terms excites violent reactions in those who know their true meanings. The popular use of to the nth degree in the sense of to the utmost exasperates the mathematician, who knows that strictly the notion of largeness is not inherent in to the nth at all. The use of by and large in the sense of broadly speaking exasperates the sailor, who knows that the true meaning of the phrase — alternately close to the wind and with the wind abeam or aft — has not the faintest relation to the meaning given to it by current usage. But there is a point where it becomes idle pedantry to try to put back into their etymological cages words and phrases that escaped from them many years ago and have settled down firmly elsewhere. To do that is to start on a path on which there is no logical stopping-point short of such absurdities as insisting that the word anecdote can only be applied to a story never told before, whereas we all know that it is more likely to mean one told too often. As Sir Clifford Allbutt used to remind his students,

the word apostate means for us far more than an absentee or a dissenter, and a muscle more than a little mouse; monks rarely live alone; rivals contend for more than water rights, and hypocrites are no longer confined to the theatre.

Sometimes words appear to have changed their meanings when the real change is in the popular estimate of the value of the ideas they stand for. There is no hint in the O.E.D. definitions that appeasement can be anything but praiseworthy. Imperialism, which Lord Rosebery defined as "a greater pride in Empire, a larger patriotism", has fallen from its pedestal. Academic is suffering a similar debasement owing to the waning of love of learning for its own sake and the growth of mistrust of intellectual activities that have no immediate utilitarian results. In music, according to the music critic of The Times, the word

has descended from the imputation of high esteem to being a withering term of polite abuse,

in spite of Stanford's attempt to stop the rot by defining the word as

a term of opprobrium applied by those who do not know their business to those who do.

A change in popular sentiment may also account for a confusing enlargement of the meaning of afford. "Can we afford to do it?" asks one of our legislators in a debate on some expensive project, meaning "have we the financial resources to do it?" "Can we afford not to do it?" retorts another, meaning "can we face the consequences of not doing it?" Unless this means "Shall we not have to spend more money in some other way if we do not do it?" the arguments are not in the same plane, and will never meet.

Public opinion decides all these questions in the long run; there is little that individuals can do about them. Our national vocabulary is a democratic institution, and what is generally accepted will ultimately be correct. I have no doubt that if anyone should read this book in fifty years' time he would find current objections to the use of certain words in certain senses as curious as we now find Swift's denunciation of mob. Lexicographers soon find this out. I have quoted Dr. Johnson; seventy years later Noah Webster said the same thing in different words:

It is quite impossible to stop the progress of language — it is like the course of the Mississippi, the motion of which at times is scarcely perceptible yet even then it possesses a momentum quite irresistible. Words and expressions will be forced into use in spite of all the exertions of all the writers in the world.

The duty of the official is, however, clear. Just as it has long been recognised that, in salaries and wages, the Civil Service must neither walk ahead of public opinion nor lag behind it, but, in the old phrase, be "in the first flight of good employers", so it is the duty of the official in his use of English neither to perpetuate what is obsolescent nor to give currency to what is novel, but, like a good servant, to follow what is generally regarded by his masters as the best practice for the time being. Among his readers will be vigilant guardians of the purity of English prose, and they must not be offended. So the official's vocabulary must contain only words that by general consent have passed the barrier, and he must not give a helping hand to any that are still trying to get through, even though he may think them deserving.

For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice.

The sentence that is right, adds Mr. Eliot, is one

...where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together. 5

I will end this chapter on correctness in words with a list of some words and phrases often used in senses generally regarded as incorrect. At the end of Chapters 7 and 8 are lists of other words and phrases that are apt to be used unsuitably rather than incorrectly.

It is not easy to decide which words should be assigned to the "incorrect" category and which to the "unsuitable", and I do not suppose that all readers will agree with my classification: so many words are trying to arrogate new meanings that opinions may well differ about which have succeeded and which not. Even if my choice is right now, it will almost certainly be out-of-date before long.

For instance, as this book goes to the publisher, I am shaken to find that the very first word in the list is used in The Times Literary Supplement in the sense that I condemn. (16) But in spite of this high authority I cannot bring myself to move the word from the "incorrects" to the "inexpedients".


The Victorians allowed great scope to individuality and masculinity, strong passions and high spirits, and other alibis for overweening egomania, insecurity and aggression.

Members of the timber trade, like members of any other trade, are glad of any alibi to explain any particular increases in price.

Either we accept the bare facts or we go down to a lower standard of living. The day of alibis is gone.

Alibi is used in these examples, in the sense of excuse, or of an admission of guilt with a plea of extenuating circumstances, or of throwing the blame on someone else. But alibi is the Latin for elsewhere. To plead an alibi is to rebut a charge by adducing evidence that the person charged was elsewhere at the time of the act alleged against him. "Oh Sammy Sammy vy vornt there an alleybi?" cried old Mr. Weller at the conclusion of Bardell v. Pickwick (in which it was not disputed that Mrs. Bardell had been found in Mr. Pickwick's embrace) and so furnished a classic example of the confusing properties of this word. The mischief is that if this novel use establishes itself language will lose precision; we shall be left without a word to signify the true meaning of alibi. The vogue of detective stories is no doubt responsible for the corruption. So many of them rely on an alibi for their plot that ignorant readers think the word will do for any means of rebutting a charge.

Alternate(ly) and Alternative(ly)

These are sometimes confused. Alternate(ly) means by turns. Alternative(ly) means in a way that offers a choice. "The journey may be made by rail or alternately by road" means, if it means anything, that every other journey may be made by road. It does not mean as the writer intended, that for every journey the traveller has a choice between the two means of transport. Conversely

alternatively they sat and walked in the moonlight, talking of this and that

cannot have been intended to mean that they sat and walked in the moonlight as an alternative to doing something else; what must have been intended is that they sat and walked alternately. Alternate can also be a verb meaning, in popular language, to "take it in turns".

A Priori

Do not say a priori when you mean prima facie; in fact you can probably get on without either.

Several countries most advanced from a medical point of view have for the last 20 years done without this drug, "a fact", says the Board, "which is sufficient to show that there is an a priori case for its total abolition.

No — it does not. To argue a priori is to argue from assumed axioms and not from experience. The argument here rests on the 20-year experience of several countries, and so is an argument a posteriori. Prima facie, which is what the writer probably had in mind, means on a first impression, before hearing fully the evidence for and against.

Beg the Question

This does not mean, as is commonly supposed, to evade a straight answer to a question. It means to form a conclusion by making an assumption which is as much in need of proof as the conclusion itself. Logicians call this petitio principii.

Thus to say that parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel is simply to assume as a fact the very thing you profess to prove.


A single word can be used in a question-begging way. Reactionary, victimisation, aggression, imperialism and warmonger are examples.


A body comprises (or consists of) the elements of which it is composed (or constituted); in the first example, for instance, Op. 77 comprises the quartets, not the other way round. Compose or constitute or form should have been used in these examples.

The two quartets comprising Haydn's Op. 77.

The smaller Regional Hospitals which comprise a large proportion of those available to Regional Boards.

The twelve Foreign Ministers who comprise the Atlantic Treaty Council.

The O.E.D. recognises comprise in the sense of compose, but calls it "rare". In the interests of precision it should remain so. The difference between comprise and include is that comprise is better when all the components are enumerated and include when only some of them are.


Consequential has now only two meanings in common use. It retains that of self-important, and in legal language it signifies a secondary and incidental result, especially in the phrases consequential damages and consequential amendments. For all other purposes consequent is the adjective of consequence. Thus a Minister might say, "This amendment is consequent on a promise I gave on second reading" and "This amendment is consequential on one accepted yesterday".


This word differs from definite by importing the idea of finality. A definite offer is an offer precise in its terms. A definitive offer is an offer which the person making it declares to be his last word.


Desiderate is a rather pedantic word. It is not, as some think, a formal synonym of desire, or ask for.

One influential deputation desiderated State management [of licensed premises in New Towns].

Desiderate means more than desire. It means to feel the want of, to miss, to think long for, as the Irish say. Mrs. Gummidge desiderated the old 'un. But the influential deputation cannot have been feeling like that about something that existed only in their hopes.


Disinterested means "unbiased by personal interest" (O.E.D.). It is sometimes used wrongly for uninterested (i.e. not interested). A Minister recently said in the course of a speech in Parliament:

I hope that [what I have said] will excuse me from the charge of being disinterested in this matter.

A public man dealing with public business can never be "charged" with being disinterested, as if it were a crime. It is his elementary duty always to be so.


There is no excuse for confusing the adjectives economical and economic, though confusion is seen sometimes in unexpected places. The first is now associated only with economy and the second only with economics. A tenant may protest with truth that what is admittedly an economic rent is not for him an economical one.


Factitious means "engineered" in the derogatory sense of that word, i.e. not naturally or spontaneously created. It is easily confused with fictitious, which means sham, counterfeit, unreal. A factitious thing may be genuine; a fictitious thing cannot.


This word means practicable, capable of being done. It should not be used as a synonym for probable or plausible.


Historic means noted in history; historical means belonging to history. This useful differentiation should not be blurred by the use of one for the other.


This is sometimes used (by confusion with e.g.) to introduce an example. It stands for id est, "that is", and introduces a definition, as one might say "we are meeting on the second Tuesday of this month, i.e. the tenth". E.g. (exempli gratia) means "for the sake of example" and introduces an illustration, as one might say "let us meet on a fixed day every month, e.g. the second Tuesday".


It is a common error to use infer for imply:

Great efforts were made to write down the story, and to infer that the support was normal ... I felt most bitter about this attitude ... for ... it inferred great ignorance and stupidity on the part of the enemy.

A writer or speaker implies what his reader or hearer infers. The difference is illustrated thus by Sir Alan Herbert:

If you see a man staggering along the road you may infer that he is drunk, without saying a word; but if you say "Had one too many?" you do not infer but imply that he is drunk.

There is authority for infer in the sense of imply, as there is for comprise in the sense of compose. But here again the distinction is worth preserving in the interests of the language.

Leading Question

This does not mean, as is widely supposed, a question designed to embarrass the person questioned. On the contrary, it means a question designed to help him by suggesting the answer — a type of question not permitted when a witness being examined by the counsel who called him.


Mitigate for militate is a curiously common malapropism. An example is:

I do not think that this ought to mitigate against my chances of promotion.

Practical and Practicable

Practical, with its implied antithesis of theoretical, means useful in practice. Practicable means capable of being carried out in action.

That which is practicable is often not practical. Anything that is possible of accomplishment by available means may be called practicable. Only that which can be accomplished successfully or profitably under given circumstances may be called practical.>

Wessen, Words Confused and Misused.

Prescriptive Right

This does not mean the same as indefeasible right. Prescriptive right is a technical term of the law. It means a right founded on "prescription," that is to say on long and unchallenged custom. It has no greater sanctity than any other sort of right; on the contrary, it is likely to be more questionable than most.


This word is not the opposite of antagonist (one who contends with another); the pair must not be used as synonyms of supporter and opponent, the pros and the antis. Protagonist has nothing to do with the Latin word pro: its first syllable is derived from a Greek word meaning first, and it means literally the principal actor in a play; hence it is used for the most prominent personage in any affair. It is not necessarily associated with the advocacy of anything, although it often happens to be so in fact. When we say that Mr. Willett was protagonist in the movement for summer time, we are not saying that he was pro summer time; we are saying that he played a leading part in the movement. Protagonist should not be used in the sense merely of advocate or champion.


This is an imposing word and, no doubt for that reason, is used in senses that it will not bear. The idea of too much is inseparable from it; "superabundant, superfluous, excessive", is what the dictionary says. To treat it as meaning merely inappropriate is wrong.

The Authority are now reluctant to proceed with the provision of services for a 10,000 population in case their work becomes redundant due to the subsequent need for catering for a larger population.

It is nonsense to say that provision for a population of a certain size might become superabundant if it were subsequently necessary to cater for a larger population.


Refute should be confined to the sense of proving falsity or error, and not used loosely as a synonym for deny or repudiate, as in:

The local authority refute the suggestion that their proposal is extravagant, but their arguments are wholly unconvincing.


There is much pardonable confusion between resource, recourse and resort. The most common mistake is to write "have resource to" instead of "have recourse to" or "have resort to". The correct usage can be illustrated thus:

They had recourse (or had resort, or resorted) to their reserves; it was their last resource (or resort); they had no other resources.


It is a common error to use transpire as if it meant happen or occur. It does not. It means to become known. An example of its wrong use is:

Your letter arrived at my office while I was in Glasgow, attending what transpired to be a very successful series of meetings.


There is a difference that ought to be preserved between waste and wastage; wastage should not be used as a more dignified alternative to waste. The ordinary meaning of waste is "useless expenditure or consumption, squandering (of money, time, etc.)". The ordinary meaning of wastage is "loss by use, decay, evaporation, leakage, or the like". You may, for instance, properly say that the daily wastage of a reservoir is so many gallons. But you must not say that a contributory factor is the wastage of water by householders if what you mean is that householders waste it.

A new duty seems to have been recently given to waste as a verb — that of signifying "convert into waste paper". This no doubt makes for brevity, but gives a surprising air to this instruction in a circular:

Departments are asked to ensure that as many documents as possible are wasted at the earliest permissible date.

← Chapter 3: The Elements

Chapter 5: Introductory →

  1. When this book was first published a Scottish friend wrote to me:

    As a Scot I wept bitter tears over your defeatist attitude in the matter of haver. I think it is utterly damnable that a perfectly honest word with a clearly defined meaning should be taken by 'havering bodies' and given a meaning, quite arbitrarily, which violates all its past history. ... I deplore your weak-kneed acquiescence.

  2. But Archbishop Tenison, though much out of favour with the Queen, outlived her in a most aggravating manner, so that Lambeth was never available for a Tory or a High Churchman.

    Blenheim, p. 171.

    English finds itself in possession of a phenomenal number of unrelated words identical in form and sound.

    Something about Words, p. 5.

  3. On the question whether this should be ise or ize, see Chapter 9.↩︎

  4. A remarkable experiment in this direction is the American verb to nolte prosse, meaning to enter a writ of notte prosequi.↩︎

  5. T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding. Faber & Faber, 1943.↩︎