The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
October 16, 2006

A Sandcastle Against a Tsunami: Sir Ernest Gowers' Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English
by Sir Ernest Gowers
Pp. 94. HMSO, 1948

Available - together with Sir Ernest Gowers' The ABC of Plain Words - as The Complete Plain Words (Penguin, 9.99)

Gowers' book on language is an extended prescription for civil servants. He says that when it comes to writing (p. 92):

The fact is not that officials do uniquely badly but they are uniquely vulnerable.
The idea of "officialese" is met with a reflex sneer by the English, so civil servants must consciously try to express themselves clearly.

The context is that during the 1940s the war and the Labour Government have expanded state activities beyond known frontiers and it is now the case that officials are writing directly to the public and to individuals on an unprecedented scale. They must summarise and interpret regulations, give advice and prognosticate. Because they have careers and must mind their backs (this is my emphasis rather than Gowers') they tend to retreat into vagueness and private language; their instincts are often to vacillate and to obfuscate. The book is a manual to help them give a good account of themselves, but it has been used and quoted on questions of language far beyond the English Civil Service.

This is a review of the 1948 original: there was a sequel called The ABC of Plain Words in 1951 and the two were combined into The Complete Plain Words in 1954. My own copy was my father's and contains a rather charming letter from a Glasgow bookseller dated in 1988; the bookseller is pleased to have found the copy for him and encloses a Scottish 1 note (we were on to coins in England by then) because my father had paid too much. Why a man who had been retired for 14 years would want this book so much?, why a Glasgow bookseller? (since he never went near Glasgow so far as I know) are among questions which will never be answered. Gowers himself had a long and distinguished life (1880-1966); his grandson is the composer Patrick Gowers and his great grandson is the world ranked mathematician Tim Gowers.

I would remark that when you are up against a wall with one of your enemies fists at your throat and the other about to smash your nose you are likely to express yourself quite plainly. Thus Winston Churchill, broadcasting on the 17th June 1940, said,

The news from France is very bad.
He did not say (see p. 62),
The position in regard to France is extremely serious.
But the post-war civil servant cannot bring himself to say of the war,
No houses were built for five years.
What he actually says is (p. 64),
The cessation of house-building operated over a period of five years.
Rule One for Gowers is that you should say what you have to say as clearly as possible bearing in mind your audience. There aren't any other rules though, as a matter of decency, you should try to be as sympathetic as possible. All other rules are either bogus or follow from Rule One or are mere cautions of the form,
Ask yourself before you use an abstract noun whether it really helps.
It is not the case that you should always avoid long sentences, though good prose tends to include a high proportion of short ones. Nor should you eschew words of Latin origin in favour of Saxon equivalents (which John Kennedy's speech-writers were later instructed to do). Blunt, brief speech is not the same as clear speech; indeed, they will hardly ever coincide in the areas of legislation and regulation. The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1906 includes the phrase
arising out of and in the course of [employment],
but the phrase is far too simple and ambiguous and has therefore given rise to an unprecedented volume of interpretive case-law (see pp. 7-8). I am reminded of Jonathan Miller listing the possible interpretations of GENTLEMEN LIFT THE SEAT in Beyond the Fringe.

Some bogus rules must be obeyed even though they are bogus. For example, civil servants should not split infinitives, even though (pp. 72-3):
The fact is that the rule against the split infinitive is an arbitrary fetish, productive of nothing but conscientious tortuousness and adverbs placed in unnatural and even misleading positions.
Thus "to completely fail" to do X is clear whereas "to fail completely" is only clearly ambiguous. On the other hand the official's "educated" readers believe the split infinitive is wrong and he will lose credibility if he does it. That the rule is "arbitrary" means, I take it, that it is not part of a system of rules - like verbs agreeing with nouns, for example - which must be maintained as a whole for the sake of clarity. You can invent words: Shakespeare did and somebody has to. And you can do what I just did, which is to end a sentence with a preposition. Though four is probably too many as in (p. 74):
What did you choose that book to be read to out of for?
Gowers also defends the considered use of newly imported words. For example, he defends personnel, imported from French, because we don't have an equivalent word. In most cases we said "men" or "manpower" but now we are nearly always referring to women as well. The particular outcry against "personnel" is that it dehumanises and it is interesting to note that around fifty years later "personnel" departments were replaced by "human resources" departments which paradoxically seemed even more de-humanising. His defence of ideology, another French import (with an attributable inventor, Destutt de Tracy, though Gowers seems unaware of him) is representative of his general view (p. 54):
The word offends some purists, but I do not see why it should, provided that its mesmeric influence is kept in check. 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.
Well they do care again now, of course, but nobody in 1948 would have expected that.

Naturally, Gowers is against the institution of any kind of English Academy to regulate the language. In this he sides with Doctor Johnson and opposes Dean Swift and his own contemporary Lord Wavell. He is outflanked on many issues by the linguistic purists of his day who include Ivor Brown and A. P. Herbert and also to some degree the more general accounts of H. W. Fowler and Eric Partridge and sees his own Rule One relativism as close to the views of Matthew Arnold and George Orwell. Generally, he regards incorrectness in language as a fault, but not necessarily an important one. Better, perhaps, to say what Ron Atkinson notoriously said about Gary Lineker's 1986 hat-trick against Poland -

The boy done great
- in which there is arguably more than one mistake per word than what Sir Alf Ramsey might have said:
One's own evaluation with regard to the performance of the young man would be extremely favourable.
Curiously, given that I hear a lot of complaints about missing adverbs (particularly that football commentators never use them) Gowers is keen to start an "Is your adverb really necessary?" campaign, especially in the cases of comparatively, really, alternatively, seriously, relatively and unduly (though not especially.)

I have lukewarm feelings about much of this, but I am in pathological agreement with him about the disappearing pronoun, the general tendency to use the passive tense and to avoid "I". It isn't such a big issue in the civil service as it is in academic life. An official will often be replying with a collective decision and can legitimately say "we", though if it is his own decision he should bravely say "I" as judges do. I used to find this the most annoying single stylistic error in university essays:
We will then proceed to argue that . . .
Oh yes? You and who else? You are supposed to have written this essay on your own - I'll give it a zero if it's a team effort. I was even told, mostly by graduate students who had been to polytechnics, that they had been previously instructed never to write "I". What kind of twisted logic could lie behind this? False modesty? Pseudo-objectivity? Something deeply dishonest, at any rate. The theologian Ronald Knox referred to occasions:
When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal
Corrected "I believe" to "one does feel".
I have always assumed this was irony and that "bigot zeal" was at least honest.

There are presumptions against abstract nouns and over-familiar pairings. Condition, position, situation and the like should be avoided. Try to summon up your courage to say,
We've run out of coal
instead of
The situation with regard to coal is in a dangerous position.
And you must be able to think of phrases more original than the likes of stony silence, ravishing beauty, crashing bore, resounding thump etc (LA: you could just mix them up and have crashing beauties, ravishing bores and so on.) Over-used metaphors are always to be questioned: the official mind loves "targets" (even then), but they generate nonsense: falling short of a target is the same as being behind it. Strangely, there are lot of giggles and some belly-laughs to be had from Gowers' accounts of over-used metaphors. Bottleneck was apparently all too prevalent in the 1940s and people would say things like
The bottleneck in steel has grown.
To which the obvious reply is,
Well that's all right - it's small bottlenecks which are the problem.
As a general approach to language Plain Words reads very well 60 years on. I am pleased and relieved to remark that its methods are entirely parallel to my perennial advice on how to answer exam questions. In that case Rule One is: Answer the Question. If you are asked
Is X a case of Y?
you must say whether it is or it isn't, though you are perfectly entitled to say,
Actually, "Y" means three distinct things and in two of those senses the answer is Yes whereas in the other it is No.
The wrong kind of answer most often begins with,
Before we [sic] answer this question, we must summarise our lecture notes on X and Y . . .
Gowers' central prescription is made to a civil servant trying to communicate with an individual citizen or with the public. The assumption is that there is something which can be said clearly. But I think that lying behind this assumption is another one that the official justification of policy is quite close to ordinary assumptions - that state ideology, as it were, is roughly similar to ordinary values. So you can, if you are brave and reasonably clever, speak clearly to the public. But now, I submit, we more closely resemble that paradigm state, the Soviet Union, in that honesty is absolutely impermissible. The Headmistress cannot say that she does not want to expand her school because the only additional pupils could come from nearby Grimville and would contain a high proportion of nasty little fatherless oiks. So she has to bang on about the
stability of an established and successful educational environment.
The admissions officer at the university cannot say to the rejected candidate,
They don't want you - they don't think you're good enough.
He has to talk of the
unprecedented high levels of competition.
Note that I didn't have to look very far for these examples: they were both obtained within my own household!

The other new problem which takes bad and dishonest writing to levels which Gowers could scarcely imagine is the ridiculous increase in the amount of published academic work. At least, I assume, there was both message and purpose to the writing of most civil servants in 1948. But now we have writing as a career necessity, a hundred thousand books and a million articles a year of it. It is largely defensive writing so that the author does not want to be understood or even read, but to be immune from criticism. Re-wording and jargon are the best ways of avoiding accusation, including that of plagiarism. I'll spare you the examples, but there are a billion of them out there.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement