The Complete Plain Words
A reader of Milton must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense, it arises in every line, every word is to the purpose; there are no lazy intervals, all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely you may blow 'em off; Milton's are all substance and weight; fewer would not have serv'd the turn, and more would have been superfluous.
Jonathan Richardson, quoted by F. E. Hutchinson in Milton and the English Mind, p. 137.
The fault of verbiage (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "abundance of words without necessity or without much meaning") is too multiform for analysis. But certain classifiable forms of it are specially common, and in this Chapter we will examine some of these, ending with an indeterminate class which we will call "padding", to pick up what has been left outside the others.
Palmerston 1 wrote of one of Her Majesty's Ministers abroad who had neglected an admonition to go through all his despatches and strike out all words not necessary for fully conveying his meaning:
If Mr. Hamilton would let his substantives and adjectives go single instead of always sending them forth by twos and threes, his despatches would be clearer and easier to read.
It has been wisely said that the adjective is the enemy of the noun. If we make a habit of saying "The true facts are these", we shall come under suspicion when we profess to tell merely "the facts". If a crisis is always acute and an emergency always grave, what is left for those words to do by themselves? If active constantly accompanies consideration, we shall think we are being fobbed off when we are promised bare consideration. If a decision is always qualified by definite, a decision by itself becomes a poor filleted thing. If conditions are customarily described as prerequisite or essential, we shall doubt whether a condition without an adjective is really a condition at all. If a part is always an integral part there is nothing left for a mere part except to be a spare part.
Cultivate the habit of reserving adjectives and adverbs to make your meaning more precise, and suspect those that you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. Use adjectives to denote kind rather than degree. By all means say an economic crisis or a military disaster, but think well before saying an acute crisis or a terrible disaster. Say if you like "The proposal met with noisy opposition and is in obvious danger of defeat". But do not say "The proposal met with considerable opposition and is in real danger of defeat". If that is all you want to say it is better to leave out the adjectives and say "The proposal met with opposition and is in danger of defeat".
Official writers seem to have a curious shrinking from certain adjectives unless they are adorned by adverbs. It is as though they were naked and must hastily have an adverbial dressing-gown thrown around them. The most indecent adjectives are, it seems, those of quantity or measure such as short and long, many and few, heavy and light. The adverbial dressing-gowns most favoured are unduly, relatively and comparatively. These adverbs can only properly be used when something has been mentioned or implied which gives a standard of comparison. But we have all seen them used on innumerable occasions when there is no standard of comparison. They are then meaningless. Their use is merely a shrinking from the nakedness of an unqualified statement. If the report of an accident says that about a hundred people were taken to hospital but comparatively few were detained, that is a proper use of the adverb. But when a circular says that "our diminishing stocks will be expended in a relatively short period", without mentioning any other period with which to compare it, the word signifies nothing.
Sometimes the use of a dressing-gown adverb actually makes the writer say the opposite of what he intended. The writer of the circular which said, "It is not necessary to be unduly meticulous in..." meant to say "you need not be meticulous", but what he actually said was "you must be meticulous but need not be unduly so", leaving the reader to guess when the limit of dueness in meticulousness has been reached.
Undue and unduly seem to be words that have the property of taking the reason prisoner. "There is no cause for undue alarm" is a phrase I have seen used in all sorts of circumstances by all sorts of people, from a Government spokesman about the plans of the enemy to a headmistress on the occurrence of a case of poliomyelitis. It is I suppose, legitimate to say "Don't be unduly alarmed", though I should not myself find much reassurance in it. But "there is no cause for undue alarm" differs little, if at all, from "there is no cause for alarm for which there is no cause", and that hardly seems worth saying. Unduly has of course its own proper job to do, and does it in such a sentence as "The speech was not unduly long for so important an occasion".
As some adjectives seem to attract unnecessary adverbs, so do some nouns unnecessary adjectives. I have mentioned consideration's fondness for the company of active, and I shall later refer to the inseparable companionship of alternative and accommodation. Danger is another word that is often given support it does not need, generally real or serious.
The special needs of children under 5 require as much consideration as those of the children aged 5 — 7, and there is a serious danger that they will be overlooked in these large schools.... There is a real danger ... that the development of the children would be unduly forced.
Here we have serious, real and unduly all used superfluously. Serious is prompted by a feeling that danger always needs adjectival support, and real is presumably what grammarians call "elegant variation" to avoid repeating the same word. Unduly is superfluous because the word forced itself contains the idea of undue. Real danger should be reserved for contrast with imaginary danger, as, for instance, "Some people fear so-and-so but the real danger is so-andso". These things may seem trivial, but nothing is negligible that is a symptom of loose thinking.
Vague adjectives of intensification like considerable, appreciable and substantial are too popular. None of these three should be used without three questions being asked. Do I need an adjective at all? If so, would not a more specific adjective suit better? Or, failing that, which of these three (with their different shades of meaning) is most apt? If those who write "This is a matter of considerable urgency" were to ask themselves this question, they would realise that "This is urgent" serves them better; and those who write "A programme of this magnitude will necessarily take a considerable period" will find it more effective to say "a long time". Strong words like urgent, danger, crisis, disaster, fatal, grave, paramount and essential lose their force if used too often. Reserve them for strong occasions, and then let them stand on their own legs, without adjectival or adverbial support.
It would be a fairly safe bet that respective (or respectively) is used unnecessarily or wrongly in legal and official writings more often than any other word in the language. It has one simple straightforward use, arid that is to link up subjects and objects where more than one is used with a single verb. Thus, if I say "Men and women wear trousers and skirts" you are left in doubt which wears which — which indeed is no more than the truth nowadays. But if you add the word respectively you allot the trousers to the men and skirts to the women. It can also be used harmlessly in a distributive sense, as in the sentence "Local Authorities should survey the needs of their respective areas". But it contributes nothing to the sense; there is no risk of Local Authorities thinking that they are being told to survey one another's areas. Anyway it is neater to write "Each Local Authority should survey the needs of its area". Respective and respectively are used wrongly or unnecessarily far more often than they are used rightly, and I advise you to leave them alone. You can always get on without them. Even in the example I gave you just now you can say "Men wear trousers and women skirts", which has the advantage of being crisper and therefore better English. Here is a sentence in which the writer has fallen into one of the many traps set by this capricious word. He has tried to make it distribute two things among three, and so left the reader guessing.
The Chief Billeting Officer of the Local Authority, the Regional Welfare Officer of the Ministry of Health, and the Local Officer of the Ministry of Labour and National Service will be able to supplement the knowledge of the Authority on the needs arising out of evacuation and the employment of women respectively.
It is as though one were to say "Men and women wear trousers and skirts and knickers respectively". Who has the knickers?
But any excessive fondness the official may have for respective and respectively is as nothing compared with the fascination they exercise on lawyers. These are the opening words of a coal-mining lease:
This indenture witnesseth that in consideration of the rents reservavations and covenants hereinafter respectively reserved and contained they the said A, B and C according to their several and respective shares estates rights and interests do hereby grant to the W. Company the several mines of coal called respectively X, Y and Z and also the liberty to lay down any tramroads railroads or other roads and to connect such roads trains and railroads respectively with any other roads of similar character respectively.
Six in this small compass, with none of them doing any good, and some positive harm! The draftsman seems to have used the word in much the same way as the psalmist uses Selak; he just puts it in light-heartedly when he feels that he has been long enough without one.
Here is a recent example, taken from a departmental circular, of the magnetism of this word:
Owing to the special difficulty of an apportionment of expenditure between (1) dinners and (2) other meals and refreshments respectively.
Having taken elaborate care so to arrange the sentence as to make respectively unnecessary, the writer found the lure of it irresistible after all.
Definite and definitely must be a good second to respective and respectively in any competition for the lead in adjectives and adverbs used unnecessarily. It can hardly be supposed that the adverb in the injunction—"Local Authorities should be definitely discouraged from committing themselves"—would make any difference to the official who has to carry it out; the distinction between discouraging a Local Authority definitely and merely discouraging it is too fine for most of us. Other examples are:
This is definitely harmful to the workers' health.
The recent action of the committee in approving the definite appointment of four home visitors.
This has caused two definite spring breakages to loaded vehicles.
"Where is this to stop?" asks Sir Alan Herbert. "Definite and definitely can be slipped in almost anywhere. I offer a prize to the first Foreman of a jury to announce a verdict of definitely guilty and another to the judge who informs the prisoner that he will be 'definitely hanged by the neck until he is very definitely dead.'
It is wise to be sparing of very. If it is used too freely it ceases to have any meaning; it must be used with discrimination to be effective. Other adverbs of intensification, like necessarily and inevitably, are also apt to do more harm than good unless you want to lay stress on the element of necessity or inevitability. An automatic inevitably, contributing nothing to the sense, is common:
The Committees will inevitably have a part to play in the development of the service.
The ultimate power of control which flows inevitably from the agency relationship.
Irresistibly reminded is on the way to becoming a cliché, specially useful to after-dinner speakers who want to drag in an irrelevant story, but by no means confined to them.
Other intrusive words are incidentally, specific and particular. In conversation, incidentally (like actually and definitely) is often a noise without meaning; in writing it is an apology for irrelevance, sometimes unnecessary or even ambiguous:
The Concert will include horn concertos by Haydn and Mozart, both incidentally written to order.
Incidentally to the announcer's announcement or to the composer's career?
Particular intrudes (though perhaps more in a certain type of oratory than in writing) as an unnecessary reinforcement of a demonstrative pronoun:
No arrangements have yet been made regarding moneys due to this particular country.
We would point out that availabilities of this particular material are extremely limited.
On the same day on which you advised the Custodian of the existence of this particular debt.
So much fun has been made of the common use of literally in the sense of "not literally but metaphorically" that it is perhaps hardly worth while to make more. But it would be a pity not to record some of the choicer blossoms from a recent flowering of this perennial in the correspondence columns of The Times.
[In an account of a tennis match] Miss X literally wiped the floor with her opponent.
[A comment by Punch on a statement in a newspaper that throughout a certain debate Mr. Gladstone had sat "literally glued to the Treasury Bench"] "That's torn it" said the Grand Old Man, as he literally wrenched himself away to dinner.
[Of a certain horse] It literally ran away with the Two Thousand Guineas.
[Of a rackets player] He literally blasted his opponent out of the court.
M. Clemenceau literally exploded during the argument.
He literally died in harness.
In all utility writing today, official and commercial, the simple prepositions we have in such abundance tend to be forgotten and replaced by groups of words more imposing perhaps, but less precise. The commonest of these groups are:
In connexion with
In regard to
In relation to
In respect of
In the case of
With reference to
With regard to
They are useful in their proper places, but they are generally made to serve merely as clumsy devices to save a writer the labour of selecting the right preposition. In the collection that follows the right preposition is added in brackets:
A firm timetable in relation to the works to be undertaken should be drawn up (for).
It has been necessary to cause many dwellings to be disinfested of vermin, particularly in respect of the common bed-bug (of).
The Authority are fully conscious of their responsibilities in regard to the preservation of amenities (for).
It will be necessary to decide the priority which should be given to nursery provision in relation to other forms of education provision (over).
The rates vary in relation to the age of the child (with).
Coupons without restrictions as to how you should spend (on).
There may be difficulties with regard to the provision of suitable staff (in).
Similar considerations apply with regard to application for a certificate (to).
The best possible estimate will be made at the conference as to the total number of houses which can be completed in each district during the year (of).
As to deserves special mention because it leads writers astray in other ways besides making them forget the right preposition. It may tempt them into a more elaborate circumlocution:
The operation is a severe one as to the after-effects. (The after-effects of the operation are severe.)
It is no concern of the Ministry as to the source of the information. (The source of the information is no concern of the Ministry.)
As to also has a way of intruding itself where it is not wanted, especially before such words as whether, who, what, how. All the following examples are better without as to:
Doubt has been expressed as to whether these rewards are sufficient.
I have just received an enquiry as to whether you have applied for a supplement to your pension.
I am to ask for some explanation as to why so small a sum was realised on sale.
I will look into the question as to whether you are liable.
As to serves a useful purpose at the beginning of a sentence by way of introducing a fresh subject:
As to your liability for previous years, I will go into this and write further to you.
Certain words beget verbosity. Among them are the following:
Case and instance. The sins of case are well known; it has been said that there is perhaps no single word so freely resorted to as a trouble-saver and consequently responsible for so much flabby writing.
Here are some examples to show how what might be a simple and straightforward statement becomes enmeshed in the coils of phrases formed with case:
The cost of maintenance of the building would be higher than was the case with a building of traditional construction. (The cost of maintenance of the building would be higher than that of a building of traditional construction.)
That country is not now so short of sterling as was formerly the case. (As it used to be.)
Since the officiating president in the case of each major institute takes up his office on widely differing dates. (Since the officiating presidents of the major institutes take up office on widely differing dates.)
The National Coal Board is an unwieldy organisation, in many cases quite out of touch with the coalfields.
It is not easy to guess the meaning of this last example.
This trick use of case is even worse when the reader might be misled, if only momentarily, into thinking that a material case was meant:
Cases have thus arisen in which goods have been exported without the knowledge of this Commission.
Water for domestic use is carried by hand in many cases from road standpipes.
There are, of course, many legitimate uses of the word, and writers should not be frightened away from it altogether by Quiller-Couch's much-quoted and rather overdone onslaught. There are, for instance (to borrow from Fowler):
A case of measles.
You have no case.
In case of need, or fire, or other emergency.
A case of burglary or other crime.
A law case of any sort.
Circumstances alter cases.
But do not say "that is not the case" when you mean "that is not so", or "It is not the case that I wrote that letter", when you mean "It is not true that I wrote that letter", or merely "I did not write that letter".
Instance beguiles writers in the same way as case into roundabout ways of saying simple things:
In the majority of instances the houses are three-bedroom. (Most of the houses are three-bedroom.)
Most of the factories are modern, but in a few instances the plant is obsolete. (In a few of them.)
In the first instance can generally be replaced by first.
Another such word is concerned in the phrase as far as ... is concerned. A correspondent has written asking me to
scarify the phrase "so far as ... is concerned", e.g. "the war is over so far as Germany is concerned", an actual instance; or "so far as he was concerned interest in the game was over". After long and vigilant watch I have still to find a case in which a single preposition would not he clearer as well as shorter. I suspect that my fellow-journalists are more addicted to this use of the phrase than civil servants; but these are not guiltless.
It is perhaps putting the case too high to say that "so far as ... is concerned" could always be replaced by a single preposition. I do not think that the phrase can be dispensed with by those who wish to emphasise that they have blinkers on, and are concerned only with one aspect of a question. "So far as I am concerned you may go home" implies that someone else has a say too. Or again:
So far as the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act are concerned, the sum so released may ... be utilised to reimburse you for expenses...
There is no other equally convenient way of making clear that the writer is removing only the impediment created by the Act and is not concerned with any other impediment there may be.
Possibly, though less certainly, this sentence might claim the same indulgence:
The effect of the suggested system, so far as the pharmaceutical industry is concerned, would be to ensure rewards for research and development work until the new preparations were absorbed into the B.P.
It might be argued that we should not get quite the same meaning from "on the pharmaceutical industry"; this destroys the suggestion that there may be other effects, but the writer is not concerning himself with them.
But these are exceptions. There is no doubt that the phrase is generally a symptom of muddled thinking:
Some were opposed to hanging as a means of execution where women were concerned. (As a means of executing women.)
Wood pulp manufacture on a commercial scale is a very recent development so far as time is concerned. (Omit the last six words.)
The punishments at their disposal may not he of very serious effect so far as the persons punished are concerned. (On the persons punished.)
That is a matter which should be borne in mind because it does rule out a certain amount of consideration so far as the future is concerned.
I cannot translate this with any confidence. Perhaps it means
That is a matter which should be borne in mind because it circumscribes our recommendations for the future.
The fact that is an expression sometimes necessary and proper, but sometimes a clumsy way of saying what might be said more simply. When it is preceded by in view of or owing to or in spite of it may be merely an intricate way of saying because or although.
Owing to the fact that the exchange is working to full capacity. (Because the exchange...)
The delay in replying has been due to the fact that it was hoped to arrange for a representative to call upon you. (I delayed replying because I hoped to arrange for a representative to call on you.)
So too until such time as is usually merely a verbose way of saying until. It may be useful to convey a suggestion that the event contemplated is improbable or remote or has no direct connection with what is to last until it occurs. But it cannot do so in
You will be able to enjoy these facilities until such time that he terminates his agreement.
If the phrase is used, it should be such time as, not, as here, such time that.
There cannot, I think, ever by any justification for preferring the similar phrase during such time as to while.
As has other sins of superfluity imputed to it, besides the help it gives in building up verbose prepositions and conjunctions. (See above.) Dr. Ballard writes:
The word as has acquired a wide vogue in official circles. Wherever as can be put in, in it goes. A man in the public service used to draw his salary from a certain date; now he draws it as from a certain date. Time was when officials would refer to "the relationship between one department and another"; now they call it "the relationship as between one department and another". Agenda papers too often include as an item: "to consider as to the question of". If this sort of interpolation between the verb and its object were extended to ordinary speech, a man would no longer "eat his dinner" but "eat as to his dinner"; or, to make the parallel complete, "eat as to the diet of his dinner."
There is reason in saying, of a past date, "these allowances will be payable as from the 1st January last", but there is none in saying, of a future date, "these allowances will cease to be payable as from the 1st July next". "On the Ist July" is all that is needed. The phrase "as and from", not unknown, is gibberish.
As such is sometimes used in a way that seems to have no meaning:
The statistics, as such, add little to our information.
If they do not do so as statistics, in what capacity do they? The writer probably meant "by themselves".
There is no objection to the sale of houses as such.
Here the context shows the writer to have meant that there was no objection of principle to the sale of houses.
Certain pairs of words have a way of keeping company without being able to do any more together than either could have done separately. Save and except seems to have had its day, but we still have with us as and when, if and when and unless and until. As and when can be perhaps defended when used of something that will happen piecemeal ("Interim reports will be published as and when they are received"). Nothing can be said for the use of the pair in such a sentence as:
As and when the Bill becomes an Act guidance will be given on the financial provisions of it as they affect hospital maintenance.
Bills cannot become Acts piecemeal.
If and when might plead that both are needed in such a sentence as "Further cases will be studied if and when the material is available", arguing that if alone will not do because the writer wants to emphasise that material becoming available will be studied immediately, and when alone will not do because it is uncertain whether the material ever will be available. But this is all rather subtle, and the wise course will almost always be to decide which conjunction suits you better, and to use it alone. I have not been able to find (or to imagine) the use of unless and until in any context in which one of the two would not have sufficed alone.
Point of view, viewpoint, standpoint and angle, useful and legitimate in their proper places, are sometimes no more than a refuge from the trouble of precise thought, and provide clumsy ways of saying something that could be said more simply and effectively. They are used, for instance, as a circumlocution for a simple adverb, such as "from a temporary point of view" for "temporarily". Here are a few examples:
He may lack the most essential qualities from the viewpoint of the Teaching Hospitals. (He may lack the most essential qualities for work in a Teaching Hospital.)
I can therefore see no reason why we need to see these applications, apart from an information point of view. (Except for information.)
This may he a source of embarrassment to the Regional Board from the viewpoint of overall planning and administration. (This is a particularly bad one. The plain way of putting it is: "This may embarrass the Regional Board in planning and administration".) "Bare boards are unsatisfactory from every angle." (in every respect).
"From a cleaning point of view there are advantages in tables being of a uniform height." (for cleaning).
This development is attractive from the point of view of the public convenience. (This, I am told, provoked a marginal comment: "What is it like looking in the opposite direction?")
Aspect is the complement of point of view. As one changes one's point of view one sees a different aspect of what one is looking at. It is therefore natural that aspect should lead writers into the same traps as do point of view, viewpoint and standpoint. It induces writers, through its vagueness, to prefer it to more precise words, and it lends itself to woolly circumlocution. I cannot believe that there was any clear conception in the head of the official who wrote, "They must accept responsibility for the more fundamental aspects of the case". Aspect is one of the words that should not be used without deliberation, and it should be rejected if its only function is to make a clumsy paraphrase of an adverb.
Various methods are in vogue for softening the curtness of will not or cannot. The commonest are is not prepared to, is not in a position to, does not see his way to and cannot consider. Such phrases as these are no doubt dictated by politeness, and therefore deserve respect. But they must be used with discretion. The recipient of a letter may feel better—though I doubt it—if he is told that the Minister "is not prepared to approve" than he would have done if the letter had said "the Minister does not approve". But there is not even this slender justification for the phrase if what he is told is that the Minister is prepared to approve.
The Board have examined your application and they are prepared to allocate 60 coupons for this production. I am accordingly to enclose this number of coupons...
Prepared to allocate should be have allocated. Since the coupons are enclosed, the preparatory stage is clearly over.
But there is a legitimate use of prepared to, as in the following:
In order to meet the present need, the Secretary of State is prepared to approve the temporary appointment of persons without formal qualifications.
Here the Secretary of State is awaiting candidates, prepared to approve them if they turn out all right. But the phrase should never be used in actually giving approval; it is silly, and if the habit takes hold it will lead to such absurdities as
I have to acknowledge your letter of the 16th June and in reply I am prepared to inform you that I am in communication with the solicitors concerned in this matter.
There are other dangers in these phrases. They may breed by analogy verbiage that is mere verbiage and cannot call on politeness to justify its existence. You may find yourself writing that the Minister will take steps to when all you mean is he will, or that he will cause investigation to be made with a view to ascertaining, when what you mean is that he will find out. Take steps to is not always to be condemned. It is a reasonable way of expressing the beginning of a gradual process, as in:
Steps are now being taken to acquire this land.
But it is inapposite, because of its literal incongruity, in such a sentence as:
All necessary steps should be taken to maintain the present position.
There is a danger that some of these phrases may suggest undesirable ideas to the flippant. To be told that the Minister is "not in a position to approve" may excite a desire to retort that he might try putting his feet on the mantelpiece and see if that does any good. The retort will not, of course, be made, but you should not put ideas of that sort about your Minister into people's heads. Pompous old phrases must be allowed to die if they collapse under the prick of ridicule. Traditional expressions such as "I am to request you to move your Minister to do so-and-so" and "The Minister cannot conceal from himself" now run the risk of conjuring up risible pictures—the one of physical pressure applied to a bulky and inert object and the other of an honest man's prolonged and painful struggle in unsuccessful self-deception.
The English language likes to tack a preposition to a simple verb and so to create a verb with a different meaning. Verbs thus formed have been called by Logan Pearsall Smith, following Bradley, "phrasal verbs". This habit of inventing phrasal verbs has been the source of great enrichment of the language. Pearsall Smith says:
From them we derive thousands of vivid colloquialisms and idiomatic phrases by means of which we describe the greatest variety of human actions and relations. We can take to people, take them up, take them down, take them off or take them in; keep in with them, keep them down or off or on or under; get at them or round them or on with them; do for them do with them or without them, and do them in; make up to them; set them up or down or hit them off — indeed there is hardly any action or attitude of one human being to another which cannot be expressed by means of these phrasal verbs.
But there is today a tendency to form phrasal verbs to express a meaning no different from that of the verb without the particle. To do this is to debase the language, not to enrich it. Lord Conesford (then Mr. Henry Strauss) protested in a letter to The Times:
Must this government of illiterate exhortation continue to destroy the King's English? Must industries be fully "manned up" rather than "manned"? Must the strong, simple transitive verb, which is one of the main glories of our tongue, become as obsolete in England as it appears to be in America? There (or at least in Hollywood) you never meet a man, you "meet up with" him; you never visit friends, you "visit with" them; you never study a subject, you "study up on it".
Drown out, sound out, lose out, rest up, miss out on, are other examples of phrasal verbs which I am told are used in America in senses no different from that of the unadorned verb. These have so far found little favour in this country. On the other hand we seem to have welcomed the newcomer measure up to in the sense of to be adequate to an occasion: it conforms to our own practice of adding particles to give a verb a different meaning. Face up to can also fairly claim that it does not mean quite the same as face, though the difference is subtle. But pay off, try out, start up and check up on are often used in contexts where the particles do not seem to contribute anything to the sense.
All forms of verbosity might be described as padding, and the topic overlaps others we shall come to in the chapters on choosing the familiar word and choosing the precise word. I use padding here as a label for the type of verbosity Sir Winston Churchill referred to in a memorandum entitled "Brevity" that he issued as Prime Minister on the 9th August 1940. He wrote:
Let us have an end of such phrases as these:
"It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations..." or "consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect...".
Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase even if it is conversational.
"Padding" then in the sense in which Sir Winston used the word consists of clumsy and obtrusive stitches on what ought to be a smooth fabric of consecutive thought. No doubt it comes partly from a feeling that wordiness is an ingredient of politeness, and blunt statement is crude, if not rude. There is an element of truth in this: an over-staccato style is as irritating as an over-sostenuto one. But it is a matter of degree; and official prose is of the sort that calls for plainness .rather than elegance. Moreover the habit of "padding" springs partly from less meritorious notions—that the dignity of an official's calling demands a certain verbosity, and that naked truth is indecent and should be clothed in wrappings of woolly words.
Sir Winston gave two common examples based on consideration; he might equally well have chosen phrases based on appreciate. It is appreciated that (anticipating an objection that is to be met) and it will be appreciated that (introducing a reason for a decision that is to be given) are very prevalent. They can almost always be omitted without harm to the sense. (For more about appreciate, see Chapter 8.)
I have already referred to one way in which padding shows itself in official letters. Each paragraph is thought to need introductory words—"I am to add"; "I am further to observe"; "I am moreover to remark"; "Finally I am to point out"; and so forth. Here is the same phenomenon in a circular sending a form for a statistical return:
It should be noted that the particulars of expenditure... relate to gross costs.
It is appreciated that owing to staffing difficulties Local Authorities may not find it possible on this occasion to complete Tables
It will be noted that in Tables ... the only overhead expenditure which the Authorities are asked to isolate is.
Table 4 ... is intended to provide a broad picture.
The words italicised in the first three paragraphs are padding. They are no more needed there than in paragraph (iv), where the writer has wisely done without them. Perhaps he felt that he had run out of stock.
I am prepared to accept the discharge of this account by payment in instalments, but it should be pointed out that no further service can be allowed until the account is again in credit.
The opportunity is taken to mention that it is understood...
I regret that the wrong form was forwarded. In the circumstances I am forwarding a superseding one.
It should be noted that there is a possibility of a further sale.
This form of padding deserves special mention both because the temptation affects officials more than most people and because it is comparatively easy to resist. It shows itself more plainly than other more subtle temptations to pad. For the rest, padding can be defined as the use of words, phrases and even sentences that contribute nothing to the reader's perception of the writer's meaning. Some seem to be specially tempting to writers. I have mentioned consideration and appreciate; among other seductive phrases are in this connexion and for your information. These have their proper uses, but are more often found as padding clichés. In none of the following examples do they serve any other purpose.
I am directed to refer to the travelling and subsistence allowances applicable to your Department, and in this connexion I am to say...
Mr. X is an applicant for appointment as a clerk in this Department and in this connexion I shall he glad if you will complete the attached form.
The Minister's views in general in this connexion and the nature and scope of the information which he felt would assist him in this connexion was indicated at a meeting...
For your information this machine is required for the above-mentioned power station.
For your information I should perhaps explain that there is still a shortage of materials.
For your information I would inform you that it will be necessary for you to approach the local Agricultural Executive Committee.
This last example, taken from a letter I received myself shows up the futility of this curious cliché. It was not even true that I was being told this "for information"; "for action" would have been more appropriate.
Of course is another adverbial phrase that needs watching lest it should creep in as padding. In journalism, especially of the gossip kind, of course is used to impress readers by showing the writer's familiarity with an out-of-the-way piece of information or with the families of great personages. The official, if he overworks the phrase, is more likely to do so from genuine humility. He puts it in so as not to seem didactic:
Don't think that I suppose you to be so stupid that you don't already know or infer what I am telling you, but I think I ought to mention it.
Sometimes of course is wisely used for this purpose — if, for instance, the writer has good reason to say something so obvious as to make a touchy reader feel that he is being treated like a fool. It is better in such circumstances to say "of course" than its pompous variant "as you are doubtless aware". Of course might with advantage have been used in:
It may be stated with some confidence that though it is possible for a blister-gas bomb to fall in a crater previously made by an H.E. bomb, the probability of such an occurrence is small.
In this example It may be stated with some confidence that is not only padding but also an absurdity. One might say with some confidence that this will not happen, or with complete confidence that it is improbable. But to feel only some confidence about its improbability is carrying intellectual timidity almost to imbecility.
The following extracts from two documents issued by the same Ministry about the same time are instructive.
(1.) I am to add that, doubtless, local authorities appreciate that it is a matter of prime importance that information about possible breaches of Defence Regulation . . . should reach the investigating officers of the Ministry. . . with the minimum of delay.
(2.) After six years of war almost every building in this country needs work doing to it. The whole of the building labour force could be employed on nothing else but repairs and maintenance. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of families who urgently need homes of their own and will keep on suffering great hardship until houses can he provided for them.
The first of these is bad. It is the sort of thing that those who say civil servants write badly point to in support of their case. The first 18 of its 38 words are padding, and the last five are a starchy paraphrase of "as soon as possible". The second is excellent. It has no padding, and says what it has to say in brisk businesslike English. Why this difference of style within the same Department? We can only guess, but I do not think the guess is difficult. The first was written for the guidance of Local Government officials only. It was a routine matter and no special care was taken over it; its language is the sort that Local Authorities expect and understand. But the second was intended to impress the man in the street, and the writer was at pains to put his point in a way that would be grasped at once and would carry conviction. That is, I have no doubt, the explanation, but it is not a sufficient one. Whatever the purpose, the first is bad and the second good.
The following introductory sentence to a circular is, I think, wholly padding, but I cannot be sure, for I can find no meaning in it.
The proposals made in response to this request show differences of approach to the problem which relate to the differing recommendations of the Committee's Report, and include some modifications of those recommendations.
But padding is too multifarious for analysis. It can only be illustrated, and the only rule for avoiding it is to be self-critical.
Quoted by Sir C. K. Webster in Politica, August, 1934.↩︎