3. The Elements
Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"Essentially style resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than yourself-of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head ... So (says Fénelon ) ... 'your words will he fewer and more effectual, and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable'."—QUILLER-COUGH. The Art of Writing

HAVING cleared the decks by this digression, we can return to the various other purposes for which official writing has to be used. The relative importance of these, in quantity at any rate, has been changed by the immense volume of modern social legislation and the innumerable statutory controls necessitated by the war and its consequences. Official writing used to consist mostly of departmental minutes and instructions, inter-departmental correspondence, and despatches to Governors and Ambassadors. These things still have their places. But in volume they must have been left far behind by the vast output now necessary for explaining the law to the public. The man in the street is still supposed to know the law without being told, and ignorance is no excuse for breaking it. That was all very well in the days when he had little more concern with the law than an obligation to retrain from committing the crimes prohibited by the decalogue; he had then no need to have its niceties explained to him. To-day his daily life is conditioned by an infinity of statutory rights and obligations. Even if the laws that define them were short, simple and intelligible, their number alone would prevent him from discovering by his own study what those rights and obligations were.

Consider for instance the small shopkeeper. Like everyone else, he must have a working knowledge of the rationing regulations appropriate to his business and his household, of the Finance Acts that govern his and his employees' tax liability, and of the legislation determining his and their duties and rights in respect of the Health, Pensions and Unemployment Services. But that for him is only the beginning. He must also know that, on pain of committing a criminal offence, he must not (subject to certain rather complicated exceptions) keep his shop open later than a certain hour on four days in the week, a different hour on the fifth, and yet a different one on the sixth, or open it at all on Sundays; that he must give his assistants a half-holiday every week; that, if an assistant is under 18, his hours of work are limited by statute and his right to a weekly half-holiday is slightly different; that if the assistant is a girl she must be given a seat and allowed to sit on it; that the ventilation, lighting and temperature of his shop, as well as its sanitary accommodation, must at all times be "suitable and sufficient", and that if he sells food he must take various precautions against its becoming contaminated. That is a lot to expect anyone to learn for himself from a study of the statutes at large. The same is true of almost every walk of life.

The official must be his interpreter. Now this is a task as delicate as it is difficult. An official interpreting the law is looked on with suspicion. It is for the legislature to make the laws, for the executive to administer them, and for the judiciary to interpret them. The official must avoid all appearance of encroaching on the province of the Courts. For this reason it has long been a rule in the Service that when laws are brought to the notice of those affected by them the actual words of the statute must be used; in no other way can the official be sure of escaping all imputation of putting his own interpretation on the law. Here then we have a dilemma. If the official is tied to the words of the law, and if, as we have seen, the words of the law must be obscure in order to be precise, how is the man in the street to be helped to understand it?

No doubt much can be done by selection and arrangement, even though the words used are those of the Act. But something more than that is needed to carry out the exhortation recently given by a President of the Board of Trade to his staff: "Let us get away entirely from the chilly formalities of the old-style correspondence which seemed to come from some granite monolith rather than from another human being". And so the old rule is yielding to the pressure of events. There is the less need for it because, in most of the subjects that call particularly for simple explanation, a protection from bureaucracy readier than recourse to the Courts is given to the citizen. In theory he was amply protected against official oppression by the Courts being the sole authoritative interpreter of the law. But in practice the man of small means will suffer much rather than embark on legal proceedings which the State, for the sake of the principle involved in them, may think it necessary to take to the House of Lords. For this reason 150 years ago Pitt tempered the first Income Tax Act by providing that assessments were to he made not by officials but by local committees of taxpayers. This precedent was followed in the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, the National Insurance and Unemployment Insurance Acts of 1912, and all modern social legislation. In all these things the ordinary citizen has a ready means of securing, without any expense, that the exact nature of his rights and duties is defined neither by an official nor by the Courts but by a body of his fellow citizens.

This has lessened the need of the official to adhere scrupulously to the words of an Act at a time when he finds it more and more difficult to he helpful otherwise than by departing from them. A new technique is being developed for those pamphlets and leaflets that are necessary to explain the law to the man in the street in such matters as P.A.Y.E. and National Insurance. Its guiding principles are to use the simplest language and avoid technical terms, to employ the second person freely, not to try to give all the details of the law relevant to the subject, but to be content with stating the essentials, to explain, if these are stated in the writer's words and not the words of the Act, that they are an approximation only, to tell the reader where he can find fuller information and further advice, and always to make sure that he knows what are his rights of appeal. This technique is being closely studied in the Departments concerned by experts who have nothing to learn from me.

But there is another part of this subject: the answering of letters from individual correspondents about their own cases. These answers cannot be written, like the pamphlets and leaflets, by people who are experts both in the subject matter and in English composition, and here I shall have some advice to give. They need in some respects a special technique, but the principles of it are the same as those of all good writing, whatever its purpose. We have here in its most elementary form-though not on that account its least difficult-the problem of writing what one means and affecting one's reader precisely as one wishes. If therefore we begin our study of the problems of official English by examining the technique of this part of it, that will serve as a good introduction to the rest of the book, for it will bring out most of the points that we shall have to study more closely later. It is in this field of an official's duties more than in any other that good English can be defined simply as English which is readily understood by the reader. To be clear is to be efficient; to be obscure is to be inefficient. Your style of letter-writing is to be judged not by literary conventions or grammatical niceties but by whether it carries out efficiently the job you are paid to do.

But "efficiency" must be broadly interpreted. It connotes a proper attitude of mind towards your correspondent. He may not care about being addressed in literary English, but he will care very much about being treated with sympathy and understanding. It is not easy nowadays to remember anything so contrary to all appearances as that officials are the servants of the public; and the official must try not to foster the illusion that it is the other way round. So your style must not only be simple but also friendly, sympathetic and natural, appropriate to one who is a servant not a master.

Let us now try to translate these generalities into some practical rules.

(1) Be sure that you know what your correspondent is asking before you begin to answer him. Study his letter carefully. If he is obscure, spare no trouble in trying to get at his meaning. If you conclude that he means something different from what he says (as he well may) address yourself to his meaning not to his words, and do not be clever at his expense. Get into his skin, and adapt the atmosphere of your letter to suit that of his. If he is troubled, be sympathetic. If he is rude, be specially courteous. If he is muddle-headed, be specially lucid. If he is pig-headed, be patient. If he is helpful, be appreciative. If he convicts you of a mistake, acknowledge it freely and even with gratitude. But never let a flavour of the patronising creep in. Do not try to persuade your correspondent that going without the new clothes for which he asks for coupons will give him a meritorious appearance of austerity, or that the walking exercise forced on him by your refusal of a petrol allowance will be good for him. Nothing is more infuriating than this sort of well-meant attempt to soften the blow. Follow the admirable advice given in this instruction by the Board of Inland Revenue to their staff:

"There is one golden rule to hear in mind always: that we should try to put ourselves in the position of our correspondent, to imagine his feelings as he writes his letters, and to gauge his reaction as he receives ours. If we put ourselves in the other man's shoes we shall speedily detect how unconvincing our letters can seem, or how much we may be taking for granted".

(2) Begin by answering his question. Do not start by telling him the relevant law and practice, and gradually lead up to a statement of its application to his case. By doing this you keep him on tenterhooks and perhaps so befuddle him that by the time he gets to the end he is incapable of grasping what the answer is. Give him his answer briefly and clearly at the outset, and only then, if explanation is needed, begin your explanation. Thus he will know the worst, or the best, at once, and can skip the explanation if he likes.

(3) So far as possible, confine yourself to the facts of the case you are writing about. Do not, if you can avoid it, make any general statement about the law. If you do, you are likely to find yourself in this dilemma: that if you want to be strictly accurate you will have to use technical terms and legal diction that your correspondent will not understand, and if you want to be simple and intelligible you will have to qualify your statement so copiously with hedging phrases like normally, ordinarily, in most cases and with some exceptions, that your correspondent will think you are keeping something up your sleeve, and not being frank with him.

(4) Avoid a formal framework, if you can. This is a difficult subject and those who supervise correspondence of this kind are still groping for a satisfactory standard practice. How are we to "get away from the chilly formalities of the old style"?

Over the years when the "old style" became set, official correspondence consisted mostly of inter-departmental communications. Custom required, and still requires, these to be in form letters from the Permanent Head of one Department to his opposite number in another. They begin invariably with a mention of the subject about to be dealt with and of the letter, if any, that is being answered. The opening words of the letter must be "I am directed by (say) the Secretary of State for the Home Department", and throughout the letter turns of phrase must be used (e.g. "I am to ask you to submit to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury") which serve as reminders that, for present purposes, both he who writes and he who is written to are in themselves things of naught; they merely form a conduit along which the thoughts of their political chiefs may be exchanged. It is no doubt right that officials and the public should be reminded constantly that ministerial responsibility is the keystone of our democracy. But, however appropriate this style may be for formal letters on subjects about which the Minister may possibly have been personally consulted, it will not do for the sort of letter we are now concerned with. It is too flagrantly unreal; everyone knows that these letters are sent on the authority of comparatively junior officials, exercising a delegated responsibility within prescribed limits. Besides, it is quite impossible to weave into a framework of this sort the spirit of friendliness we have seen to be desirable.

The old style still shackles the new. At the outset we come up against the main difficulty. It is traditional to begin In reply to your letter of such-and-such a date. How is the writer to go on? He cannot go on traditionally with I am directed . . . ; we have ruled that out. The usual method is to continue I am to say or I have to say. But these are unsatisfactory, not to say absurd, with their vague and rather pompous suggestion of an undefined compulsion. They set the wrong tone for a letter we want to make natural and friendly. I would say or I would explain is not much better. Why the conditional mood? You are informed is too abrupt. Some cut the knot by plunging straight into a statement of fact, but this will hardly do. What is "in reply to the letter" is not the information given but the giving of it. That path leads to surprising openings such as this: In reply to your letter dated the 15th May owing to the acute shortage of rubber . . . The shortage of rubber cannot really have been the cause of the writer's letter being dated the 15th May. I am glad to be able to tell you or I am sorry to have to tell you are useful devices, but they will not serve if there is nothing in the answer likely to cause any marked joy or sorrow.

In this predicament it seems sensible to ask whether it is really necessary always to begin these letters in this way. In inter-departmental correspondence there are good reasons why one should begin by announcing what subject one is talking about and what letter one is answering. But in letters of the sort we are now considering your correspondent may have never written to a Government office before and may never do so again. He knows quite well what he wrote to you about, and when he wrote, and the fact that you are answering is evidence enough that you have received this letter. You do not begin letters to your friends In reply to your letter of . . . and the best style of correspondence between friends is what you need to imitate here.

My advice about the framework is therefore as follows. Do not think it necessary to begin always by a reference to your correspondent's letter; use your judgement. See if it will not do to give your letter a heading and then go straight to the point without any frills. If you do begin with a reference to his letter, do not open with the words In reply to your letter ... unless you see your way clear to running on naturally with some such phrase as I am glad (or sorry) to tell you. Never say I have to, and do not say I am to except during the course of a letter of the traditional type that has begun I am directed... Do not try to solve your difficulties by using the impersonal passiye: it is thought, it is appreciated, etc. That destroys any personal touch. Say I, we, the Department or the Minister, as may be most appropriate. If you cannot make the opening In reply to your letter run on naturally, but feel bound to begin with a reference to the letter you are answering, make it a complete sentence, as for instance: You wrote to me on such-and-such a date about such-and-such a question or I have looked into the question also-and-so about which you wrote me such-and-such a date. Then go on to say plainly what you have to say without any further introductory words. Here for instance is the opening of a Board of Trade stock letter:

"I am writing in reply to your letter of.. . about the extra coupons which you want for.... The clothing ration for children has already been increased beyond that allowed to adults.

This runs pleasantly (though it would be improved by the omission of which); it is more human than in reply to your letter I have to inform you and it avoids the absurdity of in reply to your letter the clothing ration for children has been increased. The difficulties created by the need to live up to the words In reply to your letter... are responsible for half the icicles that so often strike a chill to the heart of the readers of letters of this type.

(5) Be careful to say nothing that might give your correspondent the impression, however mistakenly, that you think it right that he should be put to trouble in order to save you from it. Do not use paper stamped "Date as postmark". This will be read by many recipients as meaning:

"I am much too important and busy a person to remember what the date is or to put it down if I did; so if you want to know you must pick the envelope out of the wastepaper basket, if you can find it, and read the date on the postmark, if you can decipher it. It is better that you should do this than that I should be delayed in my work even for a moment".

Do not ask him to give you over again information he has already given you unless there is some good reason for doing so, and, if there is, explain the reason. Otherwise he will infer that you think it proper that he should have to do what is perhaps quite a lot of work to save you the trouble of turning up a back file(6).

(6) Use no more words than are necessary to do the job. Superfluous words waste your time and official paper, tire your reader and obscure your meaning. There is no need, for instance, to begin each paragraph with phrases like I am further to point out, I would also add, you will moreover observe. Go straight to what you have to say, without precautionary words, and then say it in as few words as are needed to make your meaning clear.

(7) Keep your sentences short. This will help both you to think clearly and your correspondent to take your meaning. If you find you have slipped into long ones, split them up.

"If he was not insured on reaching the age of 65 be does not become insured by reason of any insurable employment which he takes up later, and the special contributions which are payable under the Act by his employer only, in respect of such employment, do not give him any title to health insurance benefits or pension, and moreover a man is not at liberty to pay any contributions on his own account as a voluntary contributor for any period after his 65th birthday".

This sentence is a long one. It contains three statements of fact linked by the conjunction and. Because this is its form, the reader is never quite sure until he has read further whether any of these statements has been completed, and he probably has not taken any of them in when he has finished. He then re-reads the sentence and picks up the statements one by one. If they had been separated by full-stops (after later and pension) and the ands omitted, he would have grasped each at first reading. The full-stops would have seemed to say to him: "Have you got that? Very well; now I'll tell you something else".

Here is another example:

"The present Unemployment Insurance scheme makes no provision for the insurance of men over 65 or women over 60. They are neither required to pay contributions nor entitled to receive benefit. Contributions paid up to the age of 65, or 60 in the case of a woman, provide current cover against unemployment. The purpose of the extended benefit regulations is to allow unemployment benefit at the standard rates to be paid without a means test after exhaustion of benefit to those who suffer a prolonged period of unemployment due to any dislocation in industry in the immediate post-war years, but not to extend the classes who are insured against unemployment."

This is a well-written letter. But it is easier to grasp the meaning of the first three sentences, which are short, than the last, which is long. Observe too how easy it is to split the last by putting the end of it first, which is its natural place in the sequence of thought, and after "current cover against unemployment" continuing:

"The extended benefit regulations do not extend the classes who are insured against unemployment. Their purpose is to allow unemployment benefit", etc.

(8) Be compact; do not put a strain on your reader's memory by widely separating parts of a sentence that are closely related to one another. Why, for instance, is this sentence difficult to grasp on first reading?

"A deduction of tax may be claimed in respect of any person whom the individual maintains at his own expense, and who is (i) a relative of his, or of his wife, and incapacitated by old age or infirmity from maintaining himself or herself, or (ii) his or his wife's widowed mother, whether incapacitated or not, or (iii) his daughter who is resident with him and upon whose services he is compelled to depend by reason of old age or infirmity."

The structure of the sentence is too diffuse; the reader has to keep in mind the opening words all the way through. It ends by telling him that a deduction of tax may be claimed "in respect of any person whom the individual maintains at his own expense and who is his daughter", but "his daughter" is separated from "who is" by no fewer than 32 words. This sentence, taken from a leaflet of Income Tax instructions, was later rewritten, and now runs as follows:

"If you maintain a relative of yourself or your wife who is unable to work because of old age or infirmity, you can claim an allowance of. . . . You can claim this allowance if you maintain your widowed mother, or your wife's widowed mother, whether she is unable to work or not. If you maintain a daughter who lives with you because you or your wife are old or infirm, you can claim an allowance of..."

Why is the new version so much easier to grasp than the old? Partly it is because a sentence of 81 words has been split into three, each making a statement complete in itself. But it is also because a device has been employed that is a most useful one when an official writer has to say, as he so often has, that such-and-such a class of people who have such-and-such attributes, and perhaps such-and-such other attributes, have such-and-such rights or obligations. The device is to use conditional clauses in the second person instead of relative clauses in the third-to say: if you belong to such-and-such a class of people, and if you have such-and-such attributes, you have such-and-such a right or obligation. The advantage of this is that it avoids the wide separation of the main verb from the main subject; the subject you comes immediately next to the verb it governs, and in this way you announce unmistakably to your reader: "I have finished describing the class of people about whom I have something to tell you, and I shall now say what I have to tell you about them".

(9) Explain technical terms in simple words. You will soon become so familiar with the technical terms of the law you are administering that you will feel that you have known them all your life, and may forget that to others they are unintelligible. Of this fault I can find no English example to equal the American one already quoted:

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

This means, I understand, that the veteran to whom it is addressed has been judged to be still not entitled to a disability pension.

I am indebted for the following example to a friend in the Board of Inland Revenue, who also supplies the comment.


"I have pleasure in enclosing a cheque for £..., a supplementary repayment for....This is accounted for by the fact that in calculating the untaxed interest assessable the interest on the loan from Mr. X was treated as untaxed, whereas it should have been regarded as received in full out of taxed sources-any liability thereon being fully satisfied. The treatment of this loan interest from the date of the first payment has been correct-i.e. tax charged at the full standard rate on Mr. X and treated in your hands as a liability fully satisfied before receipt."

"There is matter for an essay in this letter! The occasion was the issue of an unexpected cheque, and the sender thought that some kind of an explanation was needed to reassure the recipient. It is a very difficult matter to explain, very technical, and an honest attempt has been made. The major fault is one of over-explanation. in technical language.

"What the occasion called for was a simple explanation of the fact, and not a complete justification of the whole process. If the writer had said:

'In calculating the amount of repayment due to you, the interest you received on the money you lent to Mr. X was included in those items of your income which had not already been taxed. This was wrong. Mr. X has paid the tax on this interest, and you are not liable to pay tax on it again.'

then the recipient would have been satisfied. The writer could add: 'We did not make this mistake in earlier years, and you have been repaid all the tax due to you for those years', instead of his last sentence. 'Treated in your hands as a liability' is a queer way of describing an asset, and the loan was, of course to Mr. X, not from him. 'Interest-on-the-loan' is treated confusingly as a composite noun.

(10) Avoid commercialese expressions such as same as a pronoun ("I have received your letter and thank you for same"), re, your letter to hand, beg to inform, party (for person) and enclosed please find. Your relationships with your correspondent are not commercial and should be given no touch of that flavour. Some of our mentors would include ult., inst. and prox. in this ban, and there is no conceivable reason for preferring them to the name of the month, which has the advantage over them of conveying an immediate and certain meaning.

(11) Use words with precise meanings rather than vague ones. Since, as we have seen, you will not be doing your job properly unless you make your meaning readily understood, this is an elementary duty. Yet habitual disregard of it is the commonest cause of the abuse and raillery directed against what is called officialese. Every entrant into the service comes equipped with a vocabulary of common words of precise meaning adequate for all ordinary purposes. But when he begins to write as an official he has a queer trick of forgetting them and relying mainly on a smaller vocabulary of less common words with a less precise meaning. It is a curious fact that in the official's armoury of words the weapons readiest to hand are weapons not of precision but of rough and ready aim; often, indeed, they are of a sort that were constructed as weapons of precision but have been bored out by him into blunderbusses.( 7)They have been put in the front rack of the armoury; he reaches out for a word and uses one of these without troubling to search in the racks behind for one that is more likely to hit the target in the middle. For instance, the blunderbuss evacuate is now kept in front of remove, rescue, empty, clear and other words, and the hand stretching out for one of these gets no farther. Develop blocks the way to happen, occur, take place and come. Alternative (a converted weapon of precision) stands before many simple words such as different, other, new,fresh, revised. Rehabilitate and recondition are in front of a host of others, such as heal, mend, cure, repair, renovate and restore. Sterilise looks like sterilising a whole section of the armoury, though not so big a one as that threatened with liquidation by liquidate; and rack upon rack of simple prepositions are left untouched because before them are kept the blunderbusses of vague phrases such as in relation to, in regard to, in connection with and in the case of.

It may no doubt be said that it is generally easy enough to guess what is meant. But you have no business to leave your reader guessing at your meaning, even though the guess may be easy. That is not doing your job properly. If you make a habit of not Troubling to choose the right weapon of precision you may be sure that sooner or later you will set your reader a problem that is past guessing.

(12) Of words with meanings equally precise choose the common one rather than the less common. Here again official tendency is in the opposite direction, and you must be on your guard. Do not say advert for refer; or state, inform or acquaint when you might use the words say or tell; or regarding, respecting, concerning or in relation to when what you mean is about. To take other examples from documents now before me, do not say predecease for die before, ablution facilities for wash basins, it is apprehended that for I suppose, capable of locomotion for able to walk, will you be good enough to advise me for please tell me, I have endeavoured to obtain the required information for I have tried to find out what you wanted to know, it will be observed from a perusal of for you will see by reading, or I am sorry that I cannot at present consider a further issue for I am sorry I cannot let you have any more at present. Do not say thereof, thereto, therein or thereunder; use the preposition with the appropriate pronoun-of it, to it, etc. The reason why it is wrong for you to use these starchy words is not that they are bad English; most of them are perfectly good English in their proper places. The reason is twofold. First, some of these unusual words may actually be outside your correspondent's vocabulary and convey no meaning at all to him. If so, the writer, whose duty it was to make himself readily understood, was a very long way off doing his job properly. Secondly, their use runs counter to your duty to show that officials are human. These words give the reader the impression that officials are not made of common clay but are, in their own estimation at least, beings superior and aloof. They create the wrong atmosphere; the frost once formed by a phrase or two of this sort is not easily melted.

(13) Read through all your letters to see whether you have used any words of the kind described in the three preceding paragraphs, or at least do so until you are confident that you have cured yourself of the habit of thinking in this sort of language; until then you must put yourself to the trouble of translating what you have written, for only so can you cure yourself. Offending words can be recognised without much difficulty. (I shall return to the subject in more detail later.) Any that you would not yourself use in writing to a friend is suspect and must only be passed after scrutiny. If you turn back to the example given under Rule (8) you will see how careful the writer of the revised version has been about this. The word individual (a technical term of income tax law to distinguish between a personal taxpayer and a corporate one) was unnecessary and has disappeared. Deduction of tax is translated into allowance, incapacitate into unable to work, is resident with into lives with, and by reason of old age or infirmity into because you are old or infirm.

Here is another example of words deliberately and effectively chosen for their simplicity:

"If a worker's clothing is destroyed beyond any hope of repair by an accident on his job his employer can apply to us for the coupons needed to replace it. This does not mean of course that anyone can get coupons if his boots fall to pieces through ordinary wear or if he just gets a tear in his trousers".

"If he just gets a tear in his trousers" not only conveys a clearer meaning than (say) "If his garments suffer comparatively minor damage and are capable of effective reconditioning". It also creates a different atmosphere. The reader feels that the writer is a human being and not a mere cog in the bureaucratic machine— almost that he might be quite a good chap.

In the same way these opening words of a booklet issued by the Ministry of Agriculture for farmers are well calculated to make the reader feel that here is someone who knows what he is talking about and can explain it to others:

"WHY KEEP BOOKS? There are several very good reasons why the farmer, busy man as he is, should keep proper records of his business. It is the only way in which he can find out how much profit he has made, and how one year's profit compares with another. It helps him to manage his farm efficiently, and shows him how the various operations compare in outlay and in receipts".

In this chapter we have been concerned with that part of an official's duties which is described in my enumeration of them as

"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".

What I have said about it is governed throughout by three fundamental precepts. Be simple. Be short. Be human. These will apply no less to official writing of other kinds. But they will need more elaboration than has been necessary for this chapter. This will be the purpose of Chapters 5 to 8, in which much of what has been said in this chapter will be expanded. We shall moreover have to consider the implications of the remark:

"lapses from the conventionally correct irritate the educated reader, and distract his attention; and so make him less likely to be affected precisely as you wish".

We shall have to add another precept: Be correct. As this runs through the whole of what follows, we had better take it first.