Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"Do but take care to express yourself in a plain, easy Manner, in well-chosen, significant and decent Terms, and to give a harmonious and pleasing Turn to your Periods: study to explain your Thoughts, and set them in the truest Light, labouring as much as possible, not to leave them dark nor intricate, but clear and intelligible."CERVANTES. Preface to Don Quixote

THE purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English. To some of them this may seem a work of supererogation, calculated only to place an unnecessary new burden on a body of people already overburdened. "Even now", these may say, "it is all we can do to keep our heads above water by turning out at top speed letters in which we say what we mean after our own fashion. Not one in a thousand of the people we write to knows the difference between good English and bad. What is the use of all this highbrow stuff? It will only prevent us from getting on with the job".

But what is this job that must be got on with? Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer's job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely. Do these letters always say just what they mean? Nay, does the writer himself always know just what he means? Even when he knows what he means, and says it in a way that is clear to him, is it always equally clear to his reader? If not, he has not been getting on with the job. "The difficulty", said Robert Louis Stevenson, "is not to write, but to write what you mean, not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish". Let us take one or two examples given later in this book to illustrate particular faults, and, applying this test to them, ask ourselves whether the reader is likely to grasp at once the meaning of

"The treatment of this loan interest from the date of the first payment has been correct-i.e. tax charged at full standard rate on Mr. X and treated in your hands as liability fully satisfied before receipt."

or of

"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 re-validate orders or parts of orders as in (I)."

or of

"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."

or of

"Such syndromes ... result in a psychological imbalance verging on moral delinquency.

or, to take an example from America, so as to show that this is not the only country in which writers sometimes forget that what has a meaning for them may have none for their readers, of

"The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned to you for your service-connected disability is confirmed and continued ".(1)

All these were written for ordinary readers, not for experts. What will the ordinary reader make of them? About the fourth he will perhaps feel vaguely that it means that having syndromes (whatever they may be) makes young people naughty and tiresome, if not actually wicked; but he will also wonder why, if that was what the writer meant, he did not say so. The other four are not likely to convey any meaning at all to him. Yet the writers of the first, second and last knew exactly what they meant; the obscurity was not in their thoughts but in their way of expressing themselves. Possibly that is true also of the writers of the third and fourth, but these cannot escape suspicion of not thinking clearly enough to have a precise meaning to express. The fault of writing like this is not that it is unscholarly but that it is inefficient. It wastes time: the reader's time because he has to puzzle over what should be plain, and the writer's time because he may have to write again to explain his meaning. A job that needed to be done only once has had to be done twice because it was bungled the first time.

Professional writers realise that they cannot hope to affect their readers precisely as they wish without care and practice in the proper use of words. The need for the official to take pains is even greater, for if what the professional writer has written is wearisome and obscure the reader can toss the book aside and read no more, but only at his peril can he so treat what the official has tried to tell him. By proper use I do not mean grammatically proper. It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules. On the whole they are aids to writing intelligibly, for they are in the main no more than the distillation of successful experiments made by writers of English through the centuries in how best to handle words so as to make their import plain. Some few, it is true, are arbitrary. One or two actually increase the difficulty of clear expression, but these too must nevertheless be respected, because lapses from the conventionally correct irritate the educated reader, and distract his attention, and so make him the less likely to be affected precisely as you wish. But I shall not have much to say about text-book rules because they are mostly well known and well observed in official writing.

The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns not the arrangement of words but the choice of them. Only the right words can convey the right meaning; the golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words alone are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Matthew Arnold once said: "People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style". That was no doubt said partly for effect, but there is much truth in it, especially in relation to the sort of writing we are now concerned with, in which emotional appeal plays no part.

This golden rule applies to all prose, whatever its purpose, and indeed to poetry too. Illustrations could be found throughout the whole gamut of purposes for which the written word is used. At time one end of it we can turn to Shakespeare, and from the innumerable examples that offer themselves choose the lines

"Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy"

which, as a description of what the rising sun does to meadows and rivers on a "glorious morning", must be as effective a use of thirteen words as could be found in all English literature. At the other end we can turn (for the golden rule can be illustrated from official writing in its observance as well as in its breach) to the unknown member of the staff of the General Post Office who by composing the notice that used to be displayed in every post office

"Postmasters are neither bound to give change nor authorised to demand it"

used twelve words hardly less efficiently to warn customers of what must have been a singularly intractable dilemma. At first sight there seems little in common between the two. Their purposes are different; one is descriptive and emotional, the other instructional and objective. But each serves its purpose perfectly, and it is the same quality in both that makes them do so. Every word is exactly right; no other word would do as well; each is pulling its weight; none could be dispensed with. As was said of Milton's prose in the quotation that heads Chapter 6, "Fewer would not have served the turn, and more would have been superfluous".

Moreover you need to choose the right words in order that you may make your meaning clear not only to your reader but also to yourself. The first requisite for any writer is to know just what meaning he wants to convey, and it is only by clothing his thoughts in words that he can think at all. The following was written about politicians, but it is true of all of us:

"A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself . . . . What am I trying to say? What words will express it? And he probably asks himself.. . Could I put it more shortly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you-even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent-and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself".(2)

"Go to all this trouble" is not an overstatement. Few common things are more difficult than to find the right word, and many people are too lazy to try. This form of indolence sometimes betrays itself by a copious use of inverted commas. "I cannot be bothered to think of the right word", they seem to say, "so this will have to do". The same implied apology is often made in conversation by interposing "shall I say? " or by ending every sentence with "sort of thing". Officials do not do that, but in them the same phenomenon is reflected in an unwillingness to venture outside a small vocabulary of shapeless bundles of uncertain content-words like position, arise, involve, in connection with, issue, consideration, and factor-a disposition, for instance, to "admit with regret the position which has arisen in connection with" rather than to make the effort to tell the reader specifically what is admitted with regret. Clear thinking is hard work, but loose thinking is bound to produce loose writing. And clear thinking takes time, but time that has to be given to a job to avoid making a mess of it cannot be time wasted and may in the end be time saved.

It is wise therefore not to begin to write until you are quite certain what you want to say. That sounds elementary, but the elementary things are often the most likely to be neglected. Some, it is true, can never be sure of clarifying their thoughts except by trying to put them on paper. If you are one of these, never be content with your first draft; always revise it. Within the Service, authoritative advice has varied in its emphasis on the need for revision. In the Foreign Office a memorandum on draft-writing, after recommending simplicity, continued:

"It is a commonplace that this simplicity does not always come in a first draft even to the greatest stylists. Redrafting takes time, and I know that members of departments have little enough time to spend on it in these days. But it is up to them, for heads of departments and under-secretaries have still less time to spare ...".

The Ministry of Health ended a similar memorandum:

"I do not expect our letters to be models of the best English prose, and I do not want the time taken in answering letters (which is already too long) to be increased still further by unnecessary labour in the preparing, and, still less, the polishing of drafts . . . . But it is clear that there are ways of saying what is meant in shorter, plainer and better English [than the examples given]".

These pieces of advice are not irreconcilable. They relate to rather different types of communication. Both are no doubt wise. But I am sure that you should fear more the danger of putting out slipshod work by omitting to revise it than that of delaying public business by excessive polishing. Very few can write what they mean and affect their readers precisely as they wish without revising their first attempt. There is a happy mean between being content with the first thing that comes into your head and the craving for perfection that makes a Flaubert spend hours or even days on getting a single sentence to his satisfaction. The article you are paid to produce need not be polished but it must be workmanlike.

The official must use the written word for many different purposes — for Parliamentary Bills, Statutory Orders and other legal documents, for despatches to His Majesty's representatives abroad, for reports of commissions and committees, for circulars to Local Authorities and similar bodies, for departmental instructions, for minute writing, for correspondence with other departments and with the public, and for explaining the law to the millions for whom it now creates complicated personal rights and obligations and whose daily lives it orders in countless ways. Whatever the purpose, the object of the writer will be the same-to make the reader take his meaning readily and precisely. But a choice has sometimes to be made between the simplicity that conveys some meaning readily and the elaboration necessary to convey a precise one. In the first of the categories mentioned-Parliamentary Bills, Statutory Orders and other legal documents-precision is so important that these form a class apart, with which this book is not concerned. But there is so much confused thinking on this subject, even among people who ought to know better, that it will be as well, before coming to the topics with which I propose to deal, to explain why this is not one of them.