The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 5: Introductory

The craftsman is proud and careful of his tools: the surgeon does not operate with an old razor-blade: the sportsman fusses happily and long over the choice of rod, gun, club or racquet. But the man who is working in words, unless he is a professional writer (and not always then), is singularly neglectful of his instruments.

Ivor Brown

Here we come to the most important part of our subject. Correctness is not enough. The words used may all be words approved by the dictionary and used in their right senses; the grammar may be faultless and the idiom above reproach. Yet what is written may still fail to convey a ready and precise meaning to the reader. That it does so fail is the charge brought against much of what is written nowadays, including much of what is written by officials. In the first chapter I quoted a saying of Matthew Arnold that the secret of style was to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can. The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual; instead of the plain phrase the cliché.

Ivor Brown, a connoisseur of words, has invented several names for this sort of writing. In one book he calls it "jargantuan", in another "barnacular" and in another "pudder". (17) The Americans have a word for it — "gobbledygook". Its nature can be studied not only in tbe original but also in translation. Ivor Brown has translated the Lord's Prayer, Sir Alan Herbert the Catechism, Mr. George Townsend Warner the Parable of the Good Samaritan and George Orwell the passage in Ecclesiastes about the race not being to the swift nor the battle to the strong, or, as it appears in his translation, about

success or failure in competitive activities exhibiting no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity.

It may be significant that all these critics of pudder have gone to the Bible or Prayer Book to find their greatest contrasts with it. English style must have been immeasurably influenced by everyone's intimate knowledge of those two books whose cadences were heard every day at family prayers and every Sunday at matins and evensong. Now family prayers are said no longer, and few go to church.

The forms that pudder commonly takes in official writing will be examined in the following three chapters. In this one we are concerned (if I may borrow a bit of pudder from the doctors1) with the aetiology of the disease and with prescribing some general regimen for the writer that will help him to avoid catching it.

Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:

The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.

I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides — right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.

The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass.

The writer had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style. But why do we write, when we are ten, "so that the mouth can be somewhere" and perhaps when we are thirty "in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally"? What barnacular song do the puddering sirens sing to lure the writer into the land of jargantua? That, as we know, is the sort of question which though puzzling, is not beyond all conjecture. I will hazard one or two.

The first affects only the official. It is a temptation to cling too long to outworn words and phrases. The British Constitution, as everyone knows, has been shaped by retaining old forms and putting them to new uses. Among the old forms that we are reluctant to abandon are those of expressing ourselves in State documents. Every Bill begins with the words:

Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled and by the authority of the same as follows:

It ends its career as a Bill and becomes an Act when the Clerk of the Parliaments is authorised by the Queen to declare "La Reine le veult". That is all very well, because no one ever reads these traditional phrases; they are no longer intended to convey thought from one brain to another. But the official, living in this atmosphere, properly proud of the ancient traditions of his service, sometimes allows his style of letter-writing to be affected by it—adverting and acquainting and causing to be informed. There may even be produced in his mind a feeling that all common words lack the dignity that he is bound to maintain.

That, I think, is one song the sirens sing to the official. Another they certainly sing to all of us. Ivor Brown reminds us how Wells' Mr. Polly "revelled in 'sesquippledan verboojuice' ", and comments that he was behaving like William Shakespeare before him. There is something of Mr. Polly in most of us, especially when we are young. All young people of sensibility feel the lure of rippling or reverberating polysyllables. "Evacuated to alternative accommodation" can give a satisfaction that cannot be got from "taken to another house"; "ablution facilities" strikes a chord that does not vibrate to "wash-basins". Far-fetched words are by definition "recherché" words, and are thought to give distinction; thus such words as allergic, ambivalent and viable acquire their vogue. A newly-discovered metaphor, shines like a jewel in a drab vocabulary; thus blueprint, bottleneck, ceiling and target are eagerly seized, and the dust settles on their discarded predecessors—plan, hold-up, limit and objective. But it will not do. Official writing is essentially of the sort of which Horace said: "Ornatum res ipsa vetat, contenta doceri"—the very subject matter rules out ornament; it asks only to be put across.

What style, sir [asked of an East India Director some youthful aspirant for literary renown,] is most to be preferred in the composition of official dispatches?

My good fellow, [responded the ruler of Hindustan,] the style as we like is the Humdrum.

Bagehot, Letters on the French Coup d'Etat, Letter III.

Another song I am sure the sirens have in their repertoire—a call to the instinct of self-preservation. It is sometimes dangerous to be precise.

Mistiness is the mother of safety. [Said Newman.] Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of 'Aye' and the Charybdis of 'No' along the channel of 'No meaning'.

Ecclesiastics are not in this respect unique. Politicians have long known the dangers of precision of statement, especially at election time.

And now for our cry. [Said Mr. Taper.]

It is not a Cabinet for a good cry, [said Tadpole;] but then, on the other hand, it is a Cabinet that will sow dissension in the opposite ranks, and prevent them having a good cry.

Ancient institutions and modem improvements, I suppose, Mr. Tadpole. Ameliorations is the better word; ameliorations. Nobody knows exactly what it means.

Disraeli's Coningsby

That was written over 100 years ago. But it does not seem to be out of date, as Mr. Stuart Chase testifies:

A Senator, distinguished, powerful, an astute leader with surpassing skill in political management, told me that Americanism was to be this year's campaign issue. When I asked him what Americanism meant, he said he did not know, but that it was a damned good word with which to carry an election.

Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words, Methuen, 7th ed., 1950.

When the official does not know his Minister's mind, or his Minister does not know his own mind, or the Minister thinks it wiser not to speak his mind, the official must sometimes cover his utterance with a mist of vagueness. Civil Service methods are often contrasted unfavourably with those of business. But to do this is to forget that no Board of Directors of a business concern have to meet a committee of their shareholders every afternoon, to submit themselves daily to an hour's questioning on their conduct of the business, to get the consent of that committee by a laborious process to every important step they take, or to conduct their affairs with the constant knowledge that there is a shadow board eager for the shareholders' authority to take their place. The systems are quite different and are bound to produce different methods. Ministers are under daily attack, and their reputations are largely in the hands of their staffs. Only if he has full and explicit authority from his Minister can a civil servant show in an important matter that promptness and boldness which are said to be the attributes of men of business.

The words which he writes will go on record, possibly for all time, certainly for a great many years. They may have to be published, and may have a wide circulation. They may even mean something in international relationships. So, even though mathematical accuracy may in the nature of things be unattainable, identifiable inaccuracy must at least be avoided. The hackneyed official phrase, the wide circumlocution, the vague promise, the implied qualification are comfortingly to hand. Only those who have been exposed to the temptation to use them know how hard it is to resist. But with all the sympathy that such understanding may mean, it is still possible to hold that something might be done to purge official style and caution, necessary and desirable in themselves, of their worst extravagances.

This is a quotation from a leading article in The Times. It arose out of a correspondent's ridicule of this extract from a letter written by a Government Department to its Advisory Council:

In transmitting this matter to the Council the Minister feels that it may be of assistance to them to learn that, as at present advised, he is inclined to the view that, in existing circumstances, there is, prima facie, a case for...

It is as easy to slip into this sort of thing without noticing it as to see the absurdity of it when pointed out. One may surmise that the writer felt himself to be in a dilemma: he wanted the Advisory Council to advise the Minister in a certain way, but did not want them to think that the Minister had made up his mind before getting their advice. But he might have done this without piling qualification on qualification and reservation on reservation; all that he needed to say was that the Minister thought so-and-so but wanted to know what the Advisory Committee thought before taking a decision.

This quotation illustrates another trap into which official writing is led when it has to leave itself a bolt-hole, as it so often has. Cautionary clichés are used automatically without thought of what they mean. There are two of them here: inclined to think and* as at present advised*. Being inclined to think, in the sense of inclining to an opinion not yet crystallised, is a reasonable enough expression, just as one may say colloquially my mind is moving that way. But excessive use of the phrase may provoke the captious critic to say that if being inclined to think is really something different from thinking, then the less said about it the better until it has ripened into something that can be properly called thought.2 We can hardly suppose that the writer of the following sentence really needed time to ponder whether his opinion might not be mistaken:

We are inclined to think that people are more irritated by noise that they feel to be unnecessary than by noise that they cause themselves.

As at present advised should be used only where an opinion has been formed on expert (e.g. legal) advice, never, as it is too often, as the equivalent of saying: "This is what the Minister thinks in the present state of his mind but, as he is human, the state of his mind may change". That may be taken for granted.

There is often a real need for caution, and it is a temptation to hedging and obscurity. But it is no excuse for them. A frank admission that an answer cannot be given is better than an answer that looks as if it meant something but really means nothing. Such a reply exasperates the reader and brings the Service into discredit.

Politeness plays its part too: pudder is less likely to give offence. Politeness often shows itself in euphemism, a term defined by the dictionary as "the substitution of a mild or vague expression for a harsh or blunt one". It is prompted by the same impulse as led the Greeks to call the Black Sea the Euxine (the hospitable one) in the hope of averting its notorious inhospitableness, and the Furies the Eumenides (the good-hurnoured ladies) in the hope that they might be flattered into being less furious. For the Greeks it was the gods and the forces of nature that had to be propitiated; for those who govern us today it is the electorate. Hence the prevalence of what the grammarians call meiosis (understatement) and the use of qualifying adverbs such as somewhat and rather and the popularity of the not un- device. This last is useful in its place. There are occasions when a writer's meaning may be conveyed more exactly by (say) not unkindly, not unnaturally or not unjustifiably, than by kindly, naturally or justifiably. But the "not un-" habit is liable to take charge, with disastrous effects, making the victim forget all straightforward adjectives and adverbs. When an Inspector of Taxes writes "This is a by no means uncomplicated case", we may be pretty sure that he is employing meiosis. And "I think the officer's attitude was not unduly unreasonable" seems a chicken-hearted defence of a subordinate. George Orwell recommended that we should all inoculate ourselves against the disease by memorising this sentence:

A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field

Or a vague word may be preferred to a precise one because the vague is less alarming. As we shall see emergency does much service of this kind. A kindred device is to change names that have acquired unpleasant associations. Thus distressed areas were changed to special areas and schools for the backward and troublesome are now special schools. There are indeed no backward and troublesome children nowadays; as The Times has observed, those who used to be called the stupid, the unhappy and the queer are now the educationally subnormal, the maladjusted and the mentally abnormal. The poor have become the lower income brackets; criminal lunatics are now Broadmoor patients and rat-catchers rodent operators. This is no doubt a useful expedient in the art of democratic government, for the power of words is great. But it has its limitations. If the unpleasantness attaches to the thing itself, it will taint the new name; in course of time yet another will have to be found, and so ad infinitum. We do not seem to have done ourselves much good by assigning the blameless but unsuitable word lavatory to a place where there is nowhere to wash; we have merely blunted the language.

There remains one more siren-song to mention — that of laziness. As I observed in Chapter 1, clear thinking is hard work. A great many people go through life without doing it to any noticeable extent. And, as George Orwell, from whom I then quoted, has pointed out, what we are now calling pudder

will construct your sentences for you and even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent.

It is as though the builder of a house did not take the trouble to select with care the materials that he thought most suitable for his purpose, but collected chunks of masonry from ruined houses built by others and stuck them together anyhow. That is not a promising way to produce anything significant in meaning, attractive in form, or of any practical use.

So much for what I have termed the "aetiology" of pudder. Before turning to treatment it may be useful to illustrate the symptoms. To show that the British official is not the only (nor the worst) sufferer from the disease, I have gone for my examples to various sources, including writings by doctors and social workers, and drawing on the United States as well as our own country. I have added translations of the first three; the last two seem to me to defy translation.


[Quoted by The Economist] "NATO has expressed its fundamental change of policy as 'evolving in place of the overriding medium-term defence hypothesis to which all economic planning was functionally subordinate, an antithesis of balancing desiderata, such as the politico-strategical necessity against the economico-social possibility and further these two components against the need for a maximum of flexibility'".


What this really means [says The Economist] is that, whereas a national defence programme has been taken hitherto as something imposed from above which could not be altered, now the military requirements of NATO will be made to match the economic achievements of the individual countries.


The attitude of each, that he was not required to inform himself of, and his lack of interest in, he measures taken by the other to carry out the responsibility assigned to such other under the provision of plans then in effect, demonstrated on the part of each lack of appreciation of the responsibilities vested in them, and inherent in their positions.


Neither took any interest in the other's plans, or even found out what they were. This shows that they did not appreciate the responsibilities of their positions.


[Quoted in The Lancet from which the translation also is taken.] Experiments are described which demonstrate that in normal individuals the lowest concentration in which sucrose can be detected by means of gustation differs from the lowest concentration in which sucrose (in the amount employed) has to be ingested in order to produce a demonstrable decrease in olfactory acuity and a noteworthy conversion of sensations interpreted as a desire for food into sensations interpreted as a satiety associated with ingestion of food.


Experiments are described which demonstrate that a normal person can taste sugar in water in quantities not strong enough to interfere with his sense of smell or take away his appetite.


Diffusibilty of knowledge throughout the environment in which the families are to move is essential if the full expression of their potentiality is to become explicit in action. Facts pertaining to experience of every sort that the family is in course of digesting give the context and the full flavour of consciousness to their experience.

[A translation is not given.]

To reduce the risk of war and establish conditions of lasting peace requires the closer coordination in the employment of their joint resources to underpin these countries' economics in such a manner as to permit the full maintenance of their social and material standards as well as to adequate development of the necessary measures.

[A translation is not given.]

As a footnote to these examples I may add an extract from the periodical Labour lamenting the infectivity of this disease:

Managers do not look after their workers; they have functional responsibilities for works staffs. Workers do not ask to have a say in how a new design for a product is going to affect them; they claim equality in discovering the significance of that design in relation to themselves.

We can now turn to the question whether some general advice can be given to fortify the writer against infection. Two distinguished men tried their hands at this not very long ago—Fowler and Quiller-Couch. This is what Fowler says:

Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into general rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:

These rules [he added,] are given in order of merit; the last is also the least.

He also pointed out that

all five rules will often be found to give the same answer about the same word or set of words. Scores of illustrations might be produced; let one suffice: In the contemplated eventuality (a phrase no worse than anyone can pick for himself out of his paper's leading article for the day) is at once the far-fetched, the abstract, the periphrastic, the long and the Romance, for if so. It does not very greatly matter by which of the five roads the natural is reached instead of the monstrosity, so long as it is reached. The five are indicated because (1) they differ in directness, and (2) in any given case only one of them may be possible.

Quiller-Couch, writing after Fowler, discussed these rules. He disagreed with the advice to prefer the short word to the long and the Saxon to the Romance.

These two precepts, [he says,] you would have to modify by so long a string of exceptions that I do not commend them to you. In fact I think them false in theory and likely to be fatal in practice.

He then gives his own rules, which are:

I cannot set myself up as a judge between these high authorities, but as one who is now concerned only with a particular sort of prose, and who has made a close study of its common merits and faults, I respectfully agree with Quiller-Couch in refusing primary importance to the rule that the Saxon word must be preferred to the Romance, if only because it is not given to many of us always to be sure which is which. Any virtue that there may be in this rule, and in the rule to prefer the short word to the long is, I think, already implicit in the rule to prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Even Fowler said that "the Saxon oracle is not infallible", and before ever he had propounded the rule or Quiller-Couch criticised it, Bradley had said what most people are likely to think is all that need be said on the subject:

The cry for "Saxon English" sometimes means nothing more than a demand for plain and unaffected diction, and a condemnation of idle taste for "words of learned length and thundering sound" which has prevailed at some periods of our literature. So far it is worthy of all respect; but the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest for our purpose because it is not of native origin ought to be strenuously resisted.

But the rule that Quiller-Couch adds to the two of Fowler's that he accepts, however sound its content, lacks the crispness that he preaches. What we are concerned with is not a quest for a literary style as an end in itself, but to study how best to convey our meaning without ambiguity and without giving unnecessary trouble to our readers. This being our aim, the essence of the advice of both these authorities may be expressed in the following three rules, and the rest of what I have to say in the domain of the vocabulary will be little more than an elaboration of them.

Use no more words than are necessary to express your meaning, for if you use more you are likely to obscure it and to tire your reader. In particular do not use superfluous adjectives and adverbs and do not use roundabout phrases where single words would serve.

Use familiar words rather than the far-fetched, if they express your meaning equally well; for the familiar are more likely to be readily understood.

Use words with a precise meaning rather than those that are vague, for they will obviously serve better to make your meaning clear; and in particular prefer concrete words to abstract, for they are more likely to have a precise meaning.

As Fowler pointed out, rules like these cannot be kept in separate compartments; they overlap. But in the next three chapters we will follow roughly the order in which the rules are set out and examine them under the headings "Avoiding the superfluous word", "Choosing the familiar word" and "Choosing the precise word".

← Chapter 4: Correctness

Chapter 6: Avoiding the Superfluous Word →

  1. Puddery seems to be regrettably increasing in medicine. In my lifetime I have seen the mad-doctor pass through the chrysalis of alienist into the butterfly of psychiatrist. This is perhaps excusable, but why have Some seventy years ago a promising young neurologist made a discovery that necessitated the addition of a new word to the English vocabulary. He insisted that this should be knee-jerk, and knee-jerk it has remained, in spite of the efforts of patella reflex to dislodge it. He was my father; so perhaps I have inherited a prejudice in favour of home-made words.↩︎

  2. A civil service correspondent takes me to task for having dealt too leniently with this phrase. He calls the phrase "a monstrosity" which he says, "the cynic regards as being typical of the civil servant, who is (in his eyes) incapable of decisive thought". Perhaps it is wise to avoid a phrase that can arouse feelings of that sort in anyone. Sherlock Holmes reacted in the same way:

    "I am inclined to think—" said I.

    "I should do so", remarked Holmes impatiently.

    The Valley of Fear