The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 7: Choosing the Familiar Word

Literary men, and the young still more than the old of this class, have commonly a good deal to rescind in their style in order to adapt it to business. But the young, if they be men of sound abilities, will soon learn what is not apt and discard it; which the old will not. The leading rule is to be content to be commonplace — a rule which might be observed with advantage in other writings, but is distinctively applicable to these.

Henry Taylor, The Statesman, 1836

Boswell tells of Johnson:

He seemed to take pleasure in speaking in his own style; for when he had carelessly missed it, he would repeat the thought translated into it. Talking of the comedy of 'The Rehearsal', he said, 'It has not wit enough to keep it sweet'. This was easy — he therefore caught himself, and pronounced a more round sentence; 'It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction'.

The mind of another famous lover of the rotund phrase worked the opposite way.

Under the impression [said Mr. Micawber,] that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon ... in short, [said Mr. Micawber in a burst of confidence,] that you might lose your way... .

The official should not hesitate which of these remarkable men to take as his model. He should cultivate Mr. Micawber's praiseworthy habit of instinctively translating the out-of-the-way into the everyday.1 Thus we might find that, even though the Board of Trade could still not resist announcing that certain surplus government factories are now "available for re-allocation", they would not leave it at that.

"In short", they would add in a burst of confidence, "they are to be relet".

The present inclination of the official is in the opposite direction. He is a Johnsonian rather than a Micawberite, and so handicaps himself in achieving what we have seen must be the writer's primary object, to affect the reader precisely as he wishes. The simple reader is puzzled, the sophisticated one is annoyed. Here is pent-up annoyance blowing off a genial jet of steam in the leading columns of The Times:

It has always been the custom of the English to enrich their language with importations from abroad, and a similar policy has variegated their gardens, their forests, and their fauna. Their taste in exotics has in the main been sound enough and where, here and there down the generations, a lapse has occurred its consequences have rarely been far-reaching. If the affection which some of our fore-fathers felt for the monkey-puzzle seems to us nosy misplaced, we are not greatly incommoded by its after-effects; no jungles of this spiderish growth have sprung up to hem us in. If we think that 'boudoir' is a rather sickly, simpering word, or 'portmanteau' not fit for use except in limericks about young men of Taranto, we can drop them without difficulty from our vocabulary.

But some foreign importations have shown a terrifying and uncontrollable vitality, so that the sins of their original sponsors are visited with dreadful rigour upon succeeding generations. The kindly nature-lover who first liberated a pair of grey squirrels has a great deal to answer for, including a large share of the salaries of numerous Civil Servants engaged on the task known to them, rather hopefully, as pest-elimination. In the etymological field a similar bad eminence is reserved in the minds of all right-thinking men, for the individual who first introduced into the English language the word 'personnel'. It is possible, just possible, that a more degrading, a more ill-favoured synonym for two or more members of the human race has at one time or another been coined; but, if it has, it has never gained the ubiquitous and tyrannical currency of this alien collective. Personnel, though in theory they are men and women, have only to be called personnel to lose their full status as human beings. They do not go, they proceed. They do not have, they are (or more often are not) in possession of. They do not ask, they make application for. Their minds, in so far as they may be deemed to have minds, are stocked not with the glories of knowledge but with irrelevant and unmemorable statistics, such as their father's nationality at birth and the date on which they were last inoculated against yellow fever. Once they either kept things or gave them up; now they must retain or surrender them. Want (it is true) they do not know, nor need; but deficiencies and requirements are just as inconvenient. They cannot eat, they can only consume; they perform ablutions; instead of homes they have place(s) of residence in which, instead of living, they are domiciled. I hey are not cattle, they are not ciphers, they certainly are not human beings; they are personnel.

It would be churlish to accuse an onslaught so disarming of not being quite fair. But may it not be argued that when we admitted women auxiliaries to our armed forces the expression "men and material" became unsuitable; we found a gap in our vocabulary and sensibly filled it, as we have so often done before, by borrowing from the French? Still, it cannot be denied that this word, like so many other high-sounding words of vague import, has exercised an unfortunate fascination over the official mind, or that the other examples given by the writer of the article strike home. The mischief of words of this sort is that they become such favourites that they seduce their users from clarity of thought; they mesmerise them and numb their discrimination.

The precept to choose the familiar word (which is also probably the short word) must of course be followed with discretion. Many wise men throughout the centuries, from Aristotle to Sir Winston Churchill, have emphasised the importance of using short and simple words. But no one knew better than these two authorities that sacrifice either of precision or of dignity is too high a price to pay for the familiar word. If the choice is between two words that convey a writer's meaning equally well, one short and familiar and the other long and unusual, of course the short and familiar should be preferred. But one that is long and unusual should not be rejected merely on that account if it is more apt in meaning. Sir Winston does not hesitate to prefer the uncommon word if there is something to be gained by it. If we were asked whether there was any difference in meaning between woolly and flocculent we should probably say no; one was commonplace and the other unusual, and that was all there was to it. But Sir Winston, in the first volume of his Second World War, uses flocculent instead of woolly to describe the mental processes of certain people, and so conveys to his readers just that extra ounce of contempt that we feel flocculent to contain, perhaps because the combination off and I so often expresses an invertebrate state, as in flop, flap, flaccid, flimsy, flabby and filleted. Moreover there is an ugliness of shortness as well as an ugliness of length. On the same day in different daily papers I have seen the same official referred to as "Administrator of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation" and as "Aid Boss". Neither title is euphonious, and few would unhesitatingly prefer the short one.

But there are no great signs at present of any urgent need of a warning not to overdo the use of simple diction. The commonest ways in which failure to choose the simple word in official writing leads to lack of precision are the use of jargon and legal language and an addiction to showy words.

A dictionary definition of jargon is

a word applied contemptuously to the language of scholars, the terminology of a science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade or profession.

When it was confined to that sense it was a useful word. But it has been handled so promiscuously of recent years that the edge has been taken off it, and now, as has been well said, it signifies little more than any speech that a person feels to be inferior to his own. I am here using the word in the dictionary sense. In that sense its growth of late has been alarming. Modern discoveries in the older sciences and the need of the newer ones (economics, psychology and sociology) to explain their ideas have led to an enormous increase in that part of our vocabulary that can be classed as jargon. No doubt this is to some extent inevitable. New concepts may demand new words: psychology can at least plead that if a new word is necessary for what my most recent dictionary defines as "the sum total of the instinctive forces of an individual", a less pretentious one could hardly have been found than id; never can so much meaning have been packed into so small a space since the sentence "Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians" was compressed into the word Upharsin. But I find Dr. Julian Huxley refreshing when he says:

We need a term for the sum of these continuities through the whole of evolutionary time, and I prefer to take over a familiar word like progress instead of coining a special piece of esoteric jargon.

In the field of neurology Sir Francis Walshe has been provoked to a similar protest. Referring to the fondness of clinicians for inventing new words for newly-observed symptoms that may throw light on the mysteries of cerebral physiology, he says:

Thus one phenomenon may have close on a dozen neologisms attached to it, and these are not always used with precision. All this has made for confusion, for it needs heroic virtues to plunge into the muddy waters of the relevant literature to pluck out truth from their depths.

Really there are times [writes Mr. G. M. Young sadly,] when I feel that civilisation will come to an end because no one will understand what anybody else is saying.

Official writing plays a comparatively small part in building this new Tower of Babel. But it cannot escape all blame. When officials are accused of writing jargon, what is generally meant is that they affect a pompous and flabby verbosity. That is not what I mean. What I have in mind is that technical terms are used—especially conventional phrases invented by a Government department—which are understood inside the department but are unintelligible to outsiders. That is true jargon. A circular from the headquarters of a department to its regional officers begins:

The physical progressing of building cases should be confined to...

Nobody could say what meaning this was intended to convey unless he held the key. It is not English, except in the sense that the words are English words. They are a group of symbols used in conventional senses known only to the parties to the convention. It may be said that no harm is done, because the instruction is not meant to be read by anyone unfamiliar with the departmental jargon. But using jargon is a dangerous habit; it is easy to forget that the public do not understand it, and to slip into the use of it in explaining things to them. If that is done, those seeking enlightenment will find themselves plunged in even deeper obscurity. A member of the department has kindly given me this interpretation of the words quoted above, qualified by the words "as far as I can discover:

"The physical progressing of building cases" means going at intervals to the sites of factories, etc., whose building is sponsored by the department and otherwise approved to see how many bricks have been laid since the last visit. "Physical" apparently here exemplifies a portmanteau usage (syllepsis?) and refers both to the flesh-and-blood presence of the inspector and to the material development of the edifice, neither of which is, however, mentioned. "Progressing", I gather, should have the accent on the first syllable and should be distinguished from progressing. It means recording or helping forward the progress rather than going forward. "Cases" is the common term for units of work which consist of applying a given set of rules to a number of individual problems ... 'should be confined to' means that only in the types of cases specified may an officer leave his desk to visit the site."

Let us take another example. "Distribution of industry policy" is an expression well understood in the Board of Trade and other departments concerned with the subject. But it is jargon. Intrinsically the phrase has no certain meaning. Not even its grammatical construction is clear. So far as the words go, it is at least as likely that it refers to distributing something called "industry-policy" as to a policy of distributing industry. Even when we know that "distribution-of-industry" is a compound noun-adjective qualifying policy, we still do not give to the words the full meaning that those who invented the phrase intended it to have. The esoteric meaning attached to it is the policy of exercising governmental control over the establishment of new factories in such a way as to minimise the risk of local mass unemployment. No doubt it is convenient to have a label for anything that can only be explained so cumbrously. But it must not be forgotten that what is written on the label consists of code symbols unintelligible to the outsider. Forgetfulness of this kind causes perplexity and irritation. A judge recently said that he could form no idea of what was meant by the sentence:

These prices are basis prices per ton for the representative-basis-pricing specification and size and quantity;

and the Manchester Guardian was once moved to expostulate:

It is a pity that the Ministry of Supply's document "explaining" what is a genuine simplification should include passages of incomprehensible jargon like this:

The sub-authorisations required by its sub-contractors to reauthorise their orders as in (I) and (II) above. It should be borne in mind that sub-contractors may need re-authorisation not only of sub-authorisations already given for period II and beyond, but also for sub-authorisations for earlier periods, so as to revalidate orders or parts of orders as in (I).

The sense of despair produced by this sort of thing does far more to defeat the intentions of planning than some of the departments concerned seem to realise.

Single words are sometimes given a special meaning for official purposes, especially words much used during the war. At a time when our lives were regulated at every turn by the distinction between-what was and what was not "essential", that word sprouted curiously. Its development can be traced through these three quotations:

I can only deal with applications of a highly essential nature.

It is impossible to approve importations from the U.S.A. unless there is a compelling case of essentiality.

It is confirmed that as a farmer you are granted high essentiality.

In the last at any rate, if not in the other two, the word has become jargon and given a meaning not known to the dictionaries. What the writer meant in the last one was, "you are high on our waiting list".

In its ordinary sense also, essential is frequently used unsuitably. Government departments have to issue so many instructions to all and sundry nowadays that the draftsmen of them get tired of saying that people must or should do things, and misguidedly seek to introduce the relief of variety by saying, for instance, that it is necessary or that it is important that things should be done, and from that it is only a step to work oneself up into saying that it is essential or vital or even of paramount importance. Here is an extract from a wartime departmental circular:

In view of the national situation on the supply of textiles and buttons it is of paramount importance that these withdrawn garments shall be put to useful purposes.

To say that a thing is of paramount importance can only mean that it transcends in importance all other subjects. I cannot believe that buttons can ever have been in that class.

Legal diction, as we have seen, it almost necessarily obscure, and explanations of the provisions of legal documents must be translated into familiar words simply arranged.

With reference to your letter of the 12th August, I have to state in answer to question 1 thereof that where particulars of a partnership are disclosed to the Executive Council the remuneration of the individual partner for superannuation purposes will be deemed to be such proportion of the total remuneration of such practitioners as the proportion of his share in the partnership profits bears to the total proportion of the shares of such practitioner in those profits.

This is a good example of how not to explain. I think it means merely

Your income will be taken to be the same proportion of the firm's remuneration as you used to get of its profits.

I may be wrong, but even so I cannot believe that language is unequal to any clearer explanation than the unfortunate correspondent received.

Here is another example of failure to shake off the shackles of legal language:

Separate departments in the same premises are treated as separate premises for this purpose where separate branches of work which are commonly carried on as separate businesses in separate premises are carried on in separate departments in the same premises.

This sentence is constructed with that mathematical arrangement of words which lawyers adopt to make their meaning unambiguous. Worked out as one would work out an equation, the sentence serves its purpose; as literature, it is balderdash. The explanation could easily have been given in some such way as this:

If branches of work commonly carried on as separate businesses are carried on in separate departments of the same premises, those departments will be treated as separate premises.

This shows how easily an unruly sentence like this can be reduced to order by turning part of it into an "if" clause.

Even without the corrupting influence of jargon or legal diction a careless explanation may leave the thing explained even more obscure than it was before. The New Yorker of the 17th August, 1948, quotes from a publication called Systems Magazine:

Let us paraphrase and define work simplification as "that method of accomplishing a necessary purpose omitting nothing necessary to that purpose in the simplest fashion is best". This definition is important for it takes the mystery out of work simplification and leaves the essentials clearly outlined and succinctly stated.

The New Yorker's comment is: "It does indeed".

Overworked Metaphors

Those who like showy words are given to overworking metaphors. I have already referred to the usefulness and attractiveness of metaphors. They enable a writer to convey briefly and vividly ideas that might otherwise need tedious exposition. What should we have done, in our post-war economic difficulties, without our targets, ceilings and bottlenecks? But the very seductiveness of metaphors makes them dangerous, especially as we may be rather proud to have learned a new one and want to show off. Thus metaphors, especially new ones, tend to be used indiscriminately and soon get stale, but not before they have elbowed out words perhaps more commonplace but with meanings more precise. Sometimes metaphors are so absurdly overtaxed that they become a laughing-stock and die of ridicule. That has been the fate of " exploring every avenue" and of " leaving no stone unturned".

Another danger in the use of metaphors is of falling into incongruity. So long at least as they are "live"2 metaphors, they must not be given a context that would be absurd if the words used metaphorically were being used literally. Nothing is easier to do; almost all writers fall occasionally into this trap. But it is worth while to take great pains to avoid doing so, because your reader, if he notices it, will deride you. So we should not refer to the biggest bottleneck when what we mean is the most troublesome one, for that will obviously be the narrowest. A "world-wide" bottleneck may sound alarming, but anything less constrictive can hardly be imagined. Possibilities more unpleasant than the writer can have intended are suggested by the warning to Civil Defence Workers that many persons who have experienced a nuclear explosion will have diarrhoea and vomiting and should not be allowed to swamp the medical services. The statesman who said that sections of the population were being squeezed flat by inflation was not then in his happiest vein, nor was the writer who claimed for American sociology the distinction of having always immersed itself in concrete situations, nor the enthusiastic scientist who announced the discovery of a virgin field pregnant with possibilities. The warning issued during a fuel shortage that gas rings might only be used by officers earmarked for the purpose suggests a curious method of identification, and the B.B.C. did not choose their words felicitously when they said that every facet of negro music would be heard that night; facets, like children, should be seen not heard. We cannot but admit that there is no hope of checking the astonishing antics of target and of bringing that flighty word within reasonable bounds. But we do not want any more metaphors getting out of hand like that.

Among the metaphors specially popular at the present time the following deserve comment.


The O.E.D. recognises only two meanings for this word. One is "the ground or surface lying at the back of or beyond the chief objects of contemplation". The other is "a less prominent position, where an object is not readily noticed". The word has come into great favour, and is ranging a long way from the humble spheres assigned to it by the dictionary. Up to a point its extensions have been useful. To speak of examining the background of a proposal, in the sense of trying to find out what more there is in it than meets the eye, is a reasonable metaphor. So is what is called "background training" in the Civil Service to distinguish it from specialised training. And it is a reasonable extension of the metaphor to write:

Men and women with widely divergent backgrounds, ranging from graduates and trained social workers to a coalminer, a railway clerk and a clerk in an ironmongery store, had in fact succeeded.

But, like all these new favourites, it is beginning to get out of hand, and to displace more precise words:

From your particulars it would appear that your background is more suitable for posts in Government Departments employing quantity surveyors.

This does not seem to mean anything different from "you are better qualified".

It is surprising to find more women than men, but local experience provides the background; during the war women left an area where there were no jobs for them.

Here it seems to be masquerading as explanation.


The new use of backlog to mean an accumulation of arrears is common in the United States. For example, the list that our Telephone Department calls "List of waiting applicants" is called by the American Telephone Company "Backlog of held orders". This use is spreading here, and a Government department already finds it natural to write:

The most important step is to eliminate a very heavy backlog of orders on the manufacturers' books.

The metaphor seems to be from a log fire in which the backlog is the large log at the back that is never burned. Like stockpile the word is likely to establish itself here and to be regarded eventually as an enrichment of the language.


This word has caught on as a picturesque substitute for scheme or plan and the shine is wearing off it. It is not reasonable to ask that metaphors should be anchored at their points of origin, but it would make for accuracy of language if writers who use this one remembered that in the engineering industries, where it comes from, the blueprint marks the final stage of paper design.


Bottleneck is a useful and picturesque metaphor to denote the point of constriction of something that ought to be flowing freely:

Even if the manufacturers could obtain ample raw material, the shortage of skilled labour would constitute a bottleneck in production.

The metaphor is not new, but it has had a sharp rise in popularity, perhaps because our economy has been so full of bottlenecks. It needs to be handled carefully in order to avoid absurdity, as Mr. Henry Strauss (now Lord Conesford) pointed out in this letter to The Times:

In order to illustrate the progress (or whatever it is) of our language I am compiling a brochure on bottlenecks. I shall accordingly be grateful for any significant additions to these examples from recent journalism:

"The biggest bottleneck in housing",meaning the worst, most constricting and presumably narrowest bottleneck.

"Bottlenecks must be ironed out" (leading article in the daily press).

"Bottlenecks ahead" and "Bottleneck in bottles" (recent headlines).

"The economy of the Ruhr is bound to move within a vicious circle of interdependent bottlenecks."

"What is planned is actually a series of bottlenecks. The most drastic bottleneck is that of machine tools."

"One bottleneck ... which is particularly far-reaching and decisive."

Lord Conesford has recently made some additions to his collection:

Finally, before leaving my Hon. Friend, I must thank him for adding his delightful "overriding bottleneck" to my celebrated collection of bottlenecks. Hitherto, my favourites were the "drastic bottleneck", the "vicious circle of interdependent bottlenecks" and, perhaps the best of the whole collection, the "worldwide bottleneck".

Hansard, 10th July 1953.

Brackets and Groups

These words were put into currency by statisticians as synonyms for class or category, and they have been widely taken up. "These are likely in the main to be bought by the lower income groups." "Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer move to set up a Select Committee to consider the financial hardships of the small income groups?" Income group has indeed become an official cliché Mr. Ivor Brown says of this innovation:

The poor used to be called the poor; then they became, lest accuracy offend them, the under-privileged, or lower income groups. Recently they have been called, especially by economists aiming at style, the lower income brackets. I suppose the reference is to types and species bracketed together. But the usage is a stupid one. Somebody employed the term, I suppose, in an impressive article and so all the impressed readers decided to pay him the compliment of imitation.

Thus we are told of what used to be called naughty children but are now juvenile delinquents:

It is some comfort to learn that the eight to thirteen bracket is the only one that involved more arrests.


It is fashionable, though not always apt, to use breakdown in a pseudo-scientific sense vaguely connoting analysis, subdivision, or classification of statistical matter. It is certainly inept when used of things that can be physically broken down:

The houses erected should be broken down into types. (Classified according to type.)

The breakdown of this number of houses into varying densities per acre. (Division.)

The Minister wishes to avoid fragmentation of the service by breaking down the two-tier system of administration provided for in the Act into a three-tier system.

Why breaking down in the last example? If the word break must be used at all breaking up would go better with fragmentation. But why not some ordinary word such as changing, altering or converting?

The fascination of this word may lead to quaint results.

Care should be taken that the breakdown of patients by the department under whose care they were immediately before discharge is strictly followed.

Unfortunately a complete breakdown of British trade is not possible.

Statistics have been issued of the population of the United States, broken down by age and sex.


Ceiling is one of the bright young metaphors that are now so fashionable, and are displacing the old fogeys. Ceiling's victims are maximum and limit. There is no great harm in that, so long as those who use the word remember to treat it as a metaphor.

The advisory Committee did not apply for a general increase in the ceilings.

Any ceiling imposed under this rule may be increased or waived if the contributor agrees.

Ceiling here means maximum prices in the first example and maximum benefits in the second. The writers forgot that if one wants more headroom one does not increase the ceiling, still less perform the curious operation of waiving it; one raises it. Similarly anyone who thinks that "the monetary licensing ceiling" is the most effective way of expressing his meaning (though I cannot believe it really is) ought at least to remember that our normal relationship to a ceiling is under it, not within it.

In determining the floor-space, a ceiling of 15,000 square feet should normally be the limit.

This is indeed a complicated way of saying that floor-space should not normally exceed 5,000 square feet. Why drag down the ceiling?

When this metaphor, not content with swallowing maximum, tries to absorb minimum too, we pass from the tolerable to the grotesque:

The effect of this announcement is that the total figure for 1950 — 51 of £410 million can be regarded as a floor as well as a ceiling.

Liquidate And Liquidation

Liquidation is the process of ascertaining a debtor's liabilities and apportioning his assets to meet them — winding up his affairs in fact. The meaning has lately been enlarged so as to signify other sorts of winding-up, especially, with a sinister twist, the removal of opposition in a totalitarian state by methods possibly undisclosed but certainly unpleasant. The reason for this extension is no doubt to be found in the extension of the practices for which it stands. There are some who deprecate this enlargement of the word's meaning, but I do not think there is any use in doing that; it is well established, and can justly claim to be expressive and vivid and to fill a need. Sir Winston Churchill uses it in The Gathering Storm:

Many of the ordinary guarantees of civilised society had been already liquidated by the Communist pervasion of the decayed Parliamentary Government.

But liquidate is one of the words which, having once broken out, run wild. The far-fetched word terminate, having superseded the familiar end, is itself being superseded by the more far-fetched liquidate. It is now apparently regarded as suitable for denoting the ending of anything from massacring a nation to giving an employee notice. It should therefore be handled with care, and not put to such unsuitable duty as when the B.B.C. speaks of the liquidation of Britain's suzerainty over the Indian Native States, or a Local Authority writes:

These still stand as examples of solid building construction, which will stand the test of many more years of wear and tear before their usefulness has been finally liquidated.


The "vogue" use of this word is new, and unrecognised by any but the most recent dictionaries. One dictionary meaning is "repulse or recoil of a thing after impact" and another "the return or reverberation of a sound". Perhaps it is a combination of these two ideas that has led to the present common use of the word to signify those indirect consequences of a decision that bring unexpected embarrassment to the maker of it, especially when they multiply themselves. In this sense it is useful, and I have no quarrel with it. Many officials must have echoed in their own way the cry of Macbeth, who knew more about repercussions of this sort than most people,

Bloody instructions which being taught return
To plague th' inventor.

Besides, the word is indispensable to the Treasury in explaining their reasons for refusing sanction to a proposal in itself unexceptionable. But it must not be allowed to mesmerise writers into forgetting the existence of humdrum but useful words like consequence, result and effect.


Sabotage is defined as

deliberate and organised destruction of plant, machinery, etc., by dissatisfied workmen, hence, generally, any malicious or wanton destruction.

It has come much into favour of late, especially to signify the wrecking of some project or agreement in an underhand way by one of the parties to it.

The right of sabotage to be a verb is disputed.

Let us by all means sabotage the verb [says Sir Alan Herbert,] for the robust verb to wreck will always do the same work better. When wreck, destroy or damage will serve as well, one of these words ought of course to be preferred. But will they always serve? They have not the same implication of disloyalty as sabotage has. The use of sabotage as a verb is recognised by the dictionaries and will take some sabotaging.


This word means to make unfruitful. It has come much into favour among officials to express the idea of a veto on the use of something for a profitable purpose, and shows signs of the usual usurping tendencies of such words; you may already find examples of sterilised used merely as a synonym for wasted. It also needs watching for another reason. To speak of sterilising coal needed for the support of buildings is to use an appropriate metaphor; the coal is being made unfruitful for the purposes for which we use coal. But to speak of sterilising land in the sense of preventing its being built on is to say exactly the opposite of what you mean: the land is being preserved in order that it may continue to be fruitful.


Of all the metaphors that have been called on to help in the restoration of our balance of trade, target has been the most in demand.

At precisely what stage the word " target" infiltrated, under cover of more noticeably luxuriant verbiage, past the pickets of the purists to seize the commanding position in our vocabulary which it now holds none, probably, can say for certain. Students of jargon, a necessarily morbid class, may be able to explain how a word which originally meant "a light round shield or buckler" has come to signify the quantitative object of an industrial plan. The first stage of this transition — to "something aimed at or to be aimed at" — is easy enough to follow; most of us, at some stage in our careers, have discharged missiles or projectiles at "a shield-like structure marked with concentric circles". It is, as a matter of fact, our personal experience of targets which makes their sudden appearance on the plane of economic theory so puzzling in some of its aspects.

When, for instance, Mr. X speaks, as he is apparently obliged to, of the "coal target" we know roughly what he means, for a moment's thought convinces us that the relation between coal and the coal target cannot be the same as the relation between a rifle and a rifle target. But he gets us into deeper water when he talks about the "overall coal target", for, while the economist in us instantly visualises something very large indeed, the marksman can hardly refrain from recalling that the bigger a target was the easier it was to hit. Still more disconcerting and indeed alarming is the fact that neither Mr. X nor anyone on his level seems to entertain the faintest hope of actually hitting their targets, even when these are overall or even global ones. In their most optimistic moods they speak of "reaching" or "attaining" the target, an achievement which, since the bow and arrow went out of use, has never been rated very high; nothing in our own experience of musketry suggests that shots which got as far as the mark did any good if they were also wide of it.

Since this article appeared in The Times there have been many new variants. We are urged not only to reach and attain our targets, but also to fight for them, to achieve them and to obtain them. We must not be lulled by a near target. It is discouraging to be a long way short of our target and (what seems to amount to the same thing) to be a long way behind it, but it is splendid to be a long way beyond it. The headline "Target in danger" means that it is in no danger of being hit, and "Target in sight" is intended to be exceptionally encouraging to those who are trying to hit it. In fact targets have got completely out of control. We must regard the life of this metaphor as having been as short as it certainly has been merry, and treat it as dead, driven into an early grave by overwork. Then we can all do anything we like to a target without giving offence to anyone. But readers ought not to be tried too hard. A lecturer has recorded that, when he read in a speech by one of our Ministers of a "global target" which, to the Minister's regret, could not be "broken down", the picture that came into his mind was of a drunken reveller attacking a Belisha beacon. Nor should journalists bring the metaphor to life again by saying that only so many tons of coal are needed to "top the year's bull's-eye", forgetting that bull's-eyes, like golf balls, give more satisfaction when hit in the middle than when topped. Nor can even the exigencies of headline language excuse the headline "Export Target Hit" to introduce the news that, owing to a dock strike, the export target is unlikely to be hit.

So much for the perils of some of our more fashionable metaphors. But it is not only in metaphors that a preference for the more showy word may lead a writer astray, and this chapter may fitly end with some common examples. All the words are good and useful words when properly used; my warning is only against the temptation to prefer them to other words which would convey better the meaning you want to express.

Other Seductive Words


This word implies successful effort, and should not be treated as merely the equivalent of getting or reaching, as in the phrase, which I believe is not unknown, "Officers achieving redundancy". There is an air of dignity about achieve which may lead writers to prefer misguidedly such sentences as "this was impossible of achievement" to the simpler "this could not be done".


Allergic is a useful newcomer. "I am allergic to Dr. Fell" says in six words what it takes the famous quatrain 28 to say. It gives us a convenient alternative to the stilted "I have a subconscious antipathy to" and the slang "I have a thing about". But its newness and its scientific flavour combine to make it too popular, and apt to displace common words that might be more suitable, such as dislike, repugnance and aversion.


Ambivalent, like allergic, is overworked, and for the same reasons. It is sometimes even treated as if it meant ambiguous. It is a psychoanalytical term applicable to the simultaneous operation in the mind of two irreconcilable wishes. The word is new, but the condition it describes must be as old as humanity, and it would be a pity if so pretentious a usurper were allowed to displace the expression mixed feelings, which has served us so well and so long.


The use of this word as a synonym for expect is now so common that it may be a waste of time to fight longer. But it is a gross example of the encroachment of a dignified word on the province of a simple one, and I should like even now to put in a plea that the official will set a good example by never using anticipate except in its correct sense, that is to say, to convey the idea of forestalling an event, as in the time-honoured reply of Chancellors of the Exchequer, "I cannot anticipate my budget statement". A safe rule is to use it only with a substantive object, never with an infinitive or a that-clause. I give two examples, the first of its right use and the second of its wrong.

Remember, in conducting, that your thought and gesture will almost certainly be too late rather than too early. Anticipate everything.

It is anticipated that a circular on this and other matters will be issued at an early date.


This means very close(ly). An approximate estimate is one that need not be exact, but should be as near as you can conveniently make it. There is no need to use approximately when about or roughly would do as well or even better, as in

It is understood that Mr. X spent some time in America, approximately from 1939 to 1946.

Moreover the habit of using approximately leads to the absurdity of saying very approximately when what is meant is very roughly, that is to say, not very approximately, as in

An outline should be furnished to this Branch stating the relevant circumstances and a very approximate estimate of the expenditure involved.


Casualty strictly means an accident, and not the person to whom the accident happened, though its extension to cover that meaning is now well established. But writers should not allow themselves to be mesmerised into encouraging it to drive out simple words like killed, wounded, injured or hurt; to say, for instance, that someone "became a casualty" when what they mean is that he was injured, or that the casualties, rather than the injured, were taken to hospital after an accident. The only merit in its extended sense is that it covers both killed and wounded, but that may be a demerit if it is proper to distinguish between the two.


This word has been adopted by psychologists to express mental abnormality caused by suppressed tendencies. If the word is used in a psychological sense by lay writers, it should be given the meaning assigned to it by the profession. An inferiority complex is a state of mind that manifests itself in self-assertiveness; the term should not be applied, as it often is, to the shy and diffident. We already have some words (such as unbending, cleave and oversight) which can be used in precisely opposite senses; we do not want any more.


This is an old-fashioned word which starches any letter in which it is used as a synonym for think. "This method is deemed to be contra-indicated" is an unpleasant and obscure way of saying "this method is thought unsuitable". But the word is still useful in its technical sense of signifying the constructive or inferential as opposed to the explicit or actual.

Everyone is deemed to have intended the natural and probable consequences of his actions": "Anyone who does not give notice of objection within three weeks will be deemed to have agreed": "Any expenditure incurred in the preparation of plans for any work ... shall be deemed to be included in the expenditure incurred in carrying out that work.


This word originally had a precise meaning which it would be a pity not to preserve. It should not therefore be treated as the equivalent of a difficulty, or, colloquially, of a fix or a jam. To be in a dilemma (or, if you want to show your learning, to be on the horns of a dilemma) is to be faced with two (and only two) alternative courses of action, each of which is likely to have awkward results.


There is a place for envisage to indicate a mental vision of something planned but not yet created, but not nearly such a big place as is given to it. Like anticipate, it is used more suitably with a direct object than with a that-clause.

Mr. X said that he envisaged that there would be no access to the school from the main road (thought).

I would refer to your letter of the 26th February, 1948, in which you envisaged the repairs would be completed by the end of this month (said that you expected).

Certain items will fail to be dealt with not by transfer to the Minister but in the way envisaged in Section 60 (described).


This means to empty, and is a technical term of the military and medical sciences. As a military term it may be used (like empty) either of a place (evacuate a fortress) or of the people in it (evacuate a garrison). In the latter sense it was much used during the war to describe the process of moving people out of dangerous places, and they were given the convenient name of evacuees. Its inclination to encroach on the province of the simpler word remove needs watching. For the cliché evacuate to alternative accommodation, see Chapter 8.


The meaning spherical is an archaism. The meaning world-wide is a novelty, but is gaining ground fast. The standard current meaning is

pertaining to or embracing the totality of a group of items, categories or the like

Thus the price paid by the State for the coal industry was arrived at by taking a "global" figure as the value of the industry as a whole, and not an "aggregate" figure of the values of the separate collieries. The word is enjoying a spell of popular favour; it is made too much of, and used in many senses which it will not bear. It has a curious affinity with overall, whose vagaries are discussed later.


This word offends some purists, but I do not see why it should, provided that its mesmeric influence is kept in check; the old-fashioned creed or faith may sometimes serve. But now that people no longer care enough about religion to fight, massacre and enslave one another to secure the form of its observance, we need a word for what has taken its place as an excitant of those forms of human activity, and I know of none better.


This verb, meaning to carry out or fulfil, used to be hardly known outside the "barbarous jargon of the Scottish Bar".3 In 1926 Fowler "could not acquit of the charge of pedantry" a writer who used the expression "implementing Labour's promises to the electorate". It is now too firmly established to be driven out, but the occasional use of carry out or fulfil for a change would be refreshing.


This is a useful word in its proper place, to describe the process of combining different elements into a whole. But it has become too popular. It seems now to be the inevitable word for saying that anything has been joined, mixed, combined or amalgamated with anything else.


It is pedantry to object to the use of limited in the sense of restricted on the ground that everything that is not unlimited must be limited. But the word should be used with discretion and should not be allowed to make a writer forget such words as few and small. Weseen says:

Limited is not in good use as a substitute for small or one of its synonyms. "A man of limited (meagre) education and limited (inadequate) capital is likely to be limited to a limited (scant) income."


The major part or the majority ought not to be used when a plain most would meet the case. They should be reserved for occasions when the difference between a majority and a minority is significant. Thus:

Most of the members have been slack in their attendance.

The majority of members are likely to be against the proposal.


Do not use this showy word, or the similar word eventuate when a simpler one would do as well or better, e.g. happen, occur, come about, take place or even the colloquial come off.

It was thought at the time that the incoming tenant would take over the fixtures. This did not however materialise. (... But he did not.)

Materialise has its own work to do as a transitive verb in the sense of investing something non-material with material attributes, and as an intransitive verb in the sense of appearing in bodily form.


Meticulous is derived from a Latin word meaning timid, and like its plebeian cousin pernickety, still retains a flavour of fussiness over trifles. It should only be used where the writer wants to suggest that carefulness is overdone; it should not be treated as a synonym for scrupulous or any other commendatory word.


Optimism is the quality of being disposed in all circumstances to hope for the best. The edge of the meaning of optimistic is being blunted by its being habitually used for sanguine or hopeful, when what is referred to is not a habit of mind, but an attitude towards particular circumstances.

An example of its unsuitable use is:

The negotiations are making good progress, but it is too early to be either optimistic or pessimistic about them.


Do not treat optimum as a showy synonym for best. It should only be used of the product of conflicting forces. The optimum speed of a motor car is not the fastest it is capable of but that which reconciles in the most satisfactory way the conflicting desires of its owner to move quickly, to economise petrol and to avoid needless wear and tear.


Ivor Brown says about this word:

The present darling of the Departments ... is rehabilitation, a word originally applied to the restoration of a degraded man's rank and privileges. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was occasionally used to mean restoration of other kinds. Suddenly it has become the administrator's pet. A year or two ago nothing was mended, renewed or restored. Everything had to be reconditioned. Now reconditioning has been supplanted by rehabilitation, which has the merit of being one syllable longer; the blessed word "goes" officially with everything from houses to invalids. I can see no reason why the Ministry of Health should not still seek to heal people instead of rehabilitating them. But heal — poor old Bible monosyllable! Will the next translation of the Bible be allowed to heal the sick? No, it will have to rehabilitate those who are suffering from psycho-physical maladjustment.

But it is only fair to remark that rehabilitation, thus used, means something more than healing. It means a course of treatment or instruction for the purpose of restoring people already healed of a disease or wound to a life of active usefulness. Because this extension of the healing art was a new conception, it was given a new name, reasonably enough, however ill-chosen the name may be thought to he. What is to be deplored is that

the blessed word goes officially with everything from houses to invalids.


The original meaning, now archaic, was surrender, and, like surrender and give up, it could be used of either a garrison or a fugitive. The word is now less common in England than in America, where it is freely used in the sense of translation or version, and of musical or dramatic performance. For these we in Britain still prefer rendering, though, with our usual disposition to imitate things American, we are giving rendition a run. There is no good authority in either country for using the word as an all-purposes noun for the act of rendering, but it seems to have a footing in the Services and in some civil departments.

The Royal Navy have again requested some special action to introduce the special spanner; will you therefore expedite rendition of the necessary proforma for submission to the Arm. M.C.

Unilateral, multilateral, bilateral

These words are not for everyday use. They have long been part of the jargon of the diplomatist and the physiologist. And they have recently been admitted into that of the economist, where they are doing much hard work. But for ordinary purposes it is best to stick to one-sided, many-sided and two-sided. Under the influence of unilateral a sentiment that might have been plainly stated as "we will not be the only country to disarm" was recently expressed (by a politician) in the words "we will not adopt a policy of unilateral disarmament", and the repudiation of a debt was described (by a professor) as "unilateral refusal to pay".

Dr. J. M. described the condition of a man in a Southwark court case as

bilateral periorbital haematoma and left subeonjunctival haemorrhage.

Asked what this meant he replied:

For we ordinary mortals, two lovely black eyes.

Evening Standard, 2nd March, 1949.

It is a pity that the doctor marred the moral by saying "for we ordinary mortals".

Usage and User

These words are increasingly employed where use would be the right word. Usage does not mean use; it means either a manner of use (e.g. rough usage) or a habitual practice creating a standard (e.g. modern English usage). User (in its impersonal sense) is a legal term meaning the enjoyment of a right, and may be left to the lawyers. An example of usage wrongly employed for use is:

There is a serious world shortage of X-ray films due to increasing usage in all countries. In this country usage during the first six months of 1951 was 16 per cent greater than in the corresponding period of 1950.

Utilise and Utilisation

These words are rarely needed, for the simple word use will almost always serve. The official (not a Government official) who wrote "This document is forwarded herewith for the favour of your utilisation" might have written "please use this form". That says what needed to be said in four syllables instead of 21. Nor is there any reason for preferring the longer word in:

The sum so released may, upon receipt of same, be utilised to reimburse you for expenses.

Certainly use and utilise should not be employed merely by way of "elegant variation" as they apparently are in:

It is expected that Boards will be able to utilise the accommodation now being used by the existing governing bodies.


Viable is a biological term denoting the capacity of a newly-created organism to maintain its separate existence. Its present vogue rivals that of realistic; its victims include durable, lasting, workable, effective, practicable and many others.

What is the alternative? I do not pretend to know the answer but who can doubt that no viable answer is possible unless and until the Commonwealth is strong and united within itself.

Here "no viable answer is possible" seems to be merely a confused way of saying "no alternative will work".

The following is a list of some more words that are overworked in official documents, and beside them other words that might be used instead, if only, in some cases, as useful change-bowlers. I am not, of course, suggesting that they are necessarily synonyms of the words placed opposite to them or that those ought never to be used.

Word Alternative words
Acquaint Inform; tell
Adumbrate Sketch; outline; foreshadow
Advert Refer
Ameliorate Better; improve
Apprise Inform
Assist Help
Commence Begin
Consider Think
Desire Wish
Donate Give
Eventuate Come about; happen; occur; result; turn out
Evince Show; manifest; display
Factor Fact; consideration; circumstance; feature; element; constituent cause
Function (verb) Work; operate; act
Inform Tell
In isolation By itself
Initiate Begin; start
Locality Place
Locate Find
Major Important; chief; main; principal
Minimise Underestimate; disparage; belittle; make light of
Practically Virtually; almost; nearly; all but
Proceed Go
Purchase Buy
Purport (noun) Upshot; gist; tenor; substance
Question (noun) Subject; topic; matter; problem
Render Make
Require Want; need
Reside Live
Residence Home
State Say
Sufficient Enough
Terminate End
Transmit Send; forward
Visualise Imagine; picture

← Chapter 6: Avoiding the Superfluous Word

Chapter 8: Choosing the Precise Word →

  1. I was reminded of Mr. Micawber's praiseworthy habit by the footnote on p. 128 of Jespersen's Growth and Structure of the English Language.↩︎

  2. A live metaphor is one that evokes in the reader a mental picture of the imagery of its origin; a dead one does not. If we write "the situation is in hand" and "he has taken the bit between his teeth", we are in both going to horsemanship for our metaphor. But to most readers the first would be a dead metaphor, and the sentence would have no different impact from "the Situation is under control"; the second would be a live one, calling up, however faintly and momentarily, the picture of a runaway horse.↩︎

  3. "barbarous jargon"—David Irving, quoted by Fowler↩︎