4 Correctness
Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"My Lord, I do here, in the name of all the learned and polite persons of the nation, complain to Your Lordship as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the pretenders so polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities: and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar."SWIFT

THE precept "Be correct" applies to both vocabulary and grammar, and we shall have to consider both. In vocabulary this duty seems once to have been enforced more sternly on officials than it is now. More than two centuries ago the Secretary to the Commissioners of Excise wrote this letter to the Supervisor of Pontefract.

"The Commissioners on perusal of your Diary observe that you make use of many affected phrases and incongruous words, such as "illegal procedure", "harmony", etc.. all of which you use in a sense that the words do not bear. I am ordered to acquaint you that if you hereafter continue that affected and schoolboy way of writing, and to murder the language in such a manner, you will be discharged for a fool."(8)

To us the punishment seems disproportionate to the offence, though the same penalty to-day might prove gratifying to those who think we have too many officials. But we can have nothing but admiration for the sentiment of the letter or for the vigorous directness of its phrasing. It serves moreover to illustrate a difficulty presented by this precept. What is correctness, and who is to be the judge of it? It cannot be the same now as it was then. A Collector of Customs and Excise to-day might certainly use the expression "illegal procedure" without being called in question; he might even refer to the harmony of his relations with the Trade without running much risk. On the other hand it would not do for him to say, as the Supervisor of Pontefract might have said, that the Local Bench were an indifferent body, meaning that they performed their duties with impartiality, or that he prevented the arrival of his staff at his office, meaning that he always got there first.

English is not static-neither in vocabulary nor in grammar, nor yet in that elusive quality called style. The fashion in prose alternates between the ornate and the plain, the periodic and the colloquial. Grammar and punctuation defy all the efforts of grammarians to force them into the mould of a permanent code of rules. Old words drop out or change their meanings; new words are admitted. What was stigmatised by the purists of one generation as a corruption of the language may a few generations later be accepted as an enrichment, and what was then common currency may have become a pompous archaism or acquired a new significance.

Eminent men with a care for the language, from Dean Swift(9) to Lord Wavell, (10) have from time to time proposed that an Authority should be set up to preserve what is good and resist what is bad.

"They will find," said Swift, "many words that deserve to be utterly thrown out of the language, many more to be corrected, and perhaps not a few long since antiquated, which ought to be restored on account of their energy and sound".

"They should issue", said Lord Wavell, "a monthly journal of words that required protection and a pillory of misused words, and so on".

Swift's plea, which was made in the form of a letter to the Lord Treasurer, came to nothing. This, Lord Chesterfield dryly observed, was not surprising,

"precision and perspicuity not being in general the favourite objects of Ministers".

Perhaps Lord Wavell's will have the better fate that it deserves. Dr. Johnson thought the task hopeless:

"Academies have been instituted to guard the avenues of the languages, to retain fugitives and to repulse invaders; but their vigilance and activity have been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints, to enchain syllables and to lash the wind are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength".

We have had for more than twenty-five years a Society for Pure English, but I do not think that its publications have many readers outside the already converted.

One only has to look at the words proposed by Swift for inclusion in his Index Expurgatorius to realise how difficult and delicate such a task would be. He condemns for instance sham, banter, mob, bully and bamboozle. A generation later Dr. Johnson called clever a "low word" and fun and sting; "low cant". Should we not have been poorer if Swift and Johnson had had their way with these? There is no saying how things will go. The fight for admission to the language is quickly won by some assailants and long resistance is maintained against others. The word that excited Swift to greatest fury was mob, a vulgar contraction of mobile vulgus. Its victory was rapid and complete. On the other hand nice in the sense in which it is ordinarily used today in conversation has not yet established itself in literary English, though we know from the rather priggish lecture that Henry Tilney, gave to Catherine Morland about it in Northanger Abbey that it was trying to get over the barrier nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. Reliable was long opposed on the curious ground that it was an impossible construction; an adjective formed from rely could only be reli-on-able. It is not the habit of the English to refrain from doing anything merely because it is illogical; in any ease it was less illogical to accept reliable than to strain at it after swallowing available, objectionable, and other similar words. I remember noticing as a Junior in the India Office forty years ago that John Morley as Secretary of State struck it out of a draft dispatch and wrote in trustworthy. That must have been almost the last shot fired against it. Some words gate-crash irresistibly because their sound is so appropriate to the meaning they are trying to acquire. Spiv is the most recent example. Blurb, Professor Weckley tells us, was described by Robert Bridges as "an admirable word, quite indispensable". Hover does not mean vacillate, but everyone South of the Border thinks it does; there is no withstanding its suggestion of simultaneous hovering and wavering. The dictionaries do not yet recognise this, but doubtless they will soon bow to the inevitable; for, as Sir Alan Herbert has reminded us,

"modern dictionaries are pusillanimous works, preferring feebly to record what has been done than to say what ought to be done".

Vidkun Quisling won instant admission to the company of the immortals who, like the Earl of Sandwich, Mr. Joseph Aloysius Hansom, General Shrapnel and Captain Boycott, have given their names to enrich the language. There has been stout resistance against certain words that attacked the barrier in the nineteenth century with powerful encouragement from Dickens — aggravate for annoy, individual for person (with a faintly contemptuous tinge (11)), phenomena for prodigious, and mutual for common. The issue is still in the balance, but as aggravating for annoying and phenomenal for prodigious have unimpeachable contemporary authority — the one of Professor Trevelyan and the other of Professor Weekley — these two at least may claim victory to be in sight. (12)

To-day the invaders come mostly from America, and the shock-troops are new verbs. Many of these are created by the simple process of tacking ize to an adjective.

"There seems to be a notion", says Sir Alan Herbert, "that any British or American subject is entitled to take any noun or adjective, add ize to it, and say: 'I have made a new verb. What a good boy am I'. This notion must be 'finalized'."

Others are formed by the even simpler process of treating a noun as though it were a verb. Sir Alan Herbert, Ivor Brown and others do their best to protect us against these undesirable aliens. But the defenders are few, the invaders are many, and the only weapon of defence is ridicule. Ridicule does kill sometimes. Thirty years ago politicians, habitually and quite seriously, promised to explore every avenue and to leave no stone unturned. No one would dare do either today. But it is an uncertain weapon.

Moreover, the defenders must be discriminating. Some of these words should perhaps be welcomed as valuable additions to the language. As Ivor Brown himself says:

"There is of course a good case for keeping the language fluid and receptive".

About many of them there can hardly be two opinions — to decision, to suspicion, to signature, to author, to loan, to gift, to position, to finalise: these and many others are monstrosities trying to oust simple English verbs. Few words of this sort have yet made their way into official English, but loan is common, finalise is creeping in, and I have seen reposition. Some of the words exported under lease-lend established themselves at once willy-nilly, such as the nouns assignment, executive and directive, which, though they may not have done us much good, did not do us much harm. There are one or two about which even our leading defenders differ; to contact is one. Ivor Brown says of this word, and of to message:

"Perhaps these are justified. There is no word which covers approach by telephone, letter, and speech, and contact and message are self-explanatory and concise".

But Sir Alan Herbert will have none of it:

"Ten thousand times more loathsome [than the phrase 'make intriguing contacts'] is the verb to contact — have you met it? My brothers, let this verb be sabotaged by every possible avenue".

Both condemn to service, for which I would myself make a diffident plea on the ground that there is no other way so convenient of expressing the idea of giving periodical attention to a machine or of providing interest and amortisation for a loan. Others, such as to site (and dare I add to sense) can make a plausible claim to admittance for the same reason. Nor ought we to object as a matter of course to changes in the meaning of words. The main test, both for these and for the newcomers, must he whether they fill a vacant place. If they are trying to take seats already occupied, as anticipate, claim and alibi are trying to take those of expect, assert and excuse, they must clearly be resisted; still more if, like overall and liquidate, they are claiming the seats of half a dozen or more honest words. But those that try to sit down in empty ones must be considered on their merits. Stagger, for example, has recently enlarged its meaning both logically and usefully, and I do not see why the purists should condemn the growing use of nostalgic not only for a feeling of homesickness but also for the emotion aroused by "thinking of the days that are no more". They must not appeal to etymology. To attempt to restrict words to their derivative meanings is to start on a path on which there is no logical stopping-point short of such absurdities as insisting that the word anecdote can only be applied to a story never told before, whereas we all know that it generally means one told too often.

Time will show. I have no doubt that if anyone should read this book in fifty years' time he will find my objections to the use of certain words in certain senses as curious as we now find Swift's denunciation of mob. Public opinion will decide these questions in the long run, for our national vocabulary is a democratic institution, and what is generally accepted as right will ultimately be right. What Fowler said about the use of due to as a preposition is true of many other things:

"Perhaps the illiterates will beat idiom; perhaps idiom will beat the illiterates; our grandsons will know".

Meantime the duty of the official is clear. Just as it has long been recognised that, in salaries and wages, the Civil Service must neither walk ahead of public opinion nor lag behind it, but, in the old phrase, be "in the first flight of good employers", so it is the duty of the official in his use of English neither to perpetuate what is obsolescent nor to give currency to what is novel, but, like a good servant, to follow what is generally regarded by his masters as the best practice for the time being. Among his readers will be vigilant guardians of the purity of English prose, and they must not be offended. So the official's vocabulary must contain only words that by general consent have passed the barrier, and he must not give a helping hand to any that are still trying to get through, even though he may think them deserving.

When we turn from vocabulary to grammar we do not find the same difficulties. Some authorities deny the existence of any rules of grammar in the English language, and, like Saintsbury, denounce the futility of

"an attempt to draw up rules and conventions for a language which is almost wholly exception and idiom".

Jespersen echoes this:

"The chief object in teaching grammar to-day-especially that of a foreign language — would appear to be to give rules which must be obeyed if one wants to speak and write the language correctly— rules which as often as not seem quite arbitrary. Of greater value, however, than the prescriptive grammar is a purely descriptive grammar, which, instead of serving as a guide to what should be said or written, aims at finding out what is actually said and written by the speakers of the language investigated". (13)

To prescribe the usages that must be followed by anyone who wishes to write correctly, and to describe the usages that have in fact been followed by those who are generally recognised as writers of good prose, should come to the same thing, but they do not; there are few rules that could not be illustrated as freely in the breach as in the observance. These two things, however, at least are certain: that the plain style of prose is at present preferred to the ornate, and that in matters of grammar, as in so many other things, we are all expected nowadays to obey rules. The prescriptive grammarian is in the ascendant, and he makes things easier for us by paying greater regard to logic and reason than his descriptive colleagues. Perhaps he rates them too highly, for grammar in action has a way of treating them lightly. If reason is to prevail, for instance, what could be more obvious than that none, which is even less than one, cannot possibly take a plural verb, or two nouns linked by and a singular one, that from and not to must be the right preposition to follow averse and different; that you must say the first two of a series, not the two first, that you may be in circumstances but cannot possibly be under them, that these kind of things is a false concord, or that two negatives must cancel each other and produce a positive? And on the whole the standard practice of to-day accords with reason in these respects and many others. Yet plenty of examples to the contrary could be drawn from writers of the highest repute. But that does not now concern us. The main grammatical conventions of to-day are well known; it is no part of the criticism commonly made of official English that they are disregarded; and if, when in doubt, you follow reason, you are not likely to go astray. This subject will be treated more fully in Chapter 9. In the meantime we must return to the more important topic of the choice of words.