5.1 Introductory
To "Choice Of Words" in Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"The craftsman is proud and careful of his tools: the surgeon does not operate with an old razor-blade: the sportsman fusses happily and long over the choice of rod, gun, club or racquet. But the man who is working in words, unless he is a professional writer (and not always then), is singularly neglectful of his instruments."Ivor Brown

HERE we come to the most important part of our subject. Correctness is not enough. The words used may all be words approved by the dictionary and used in their right senses; the grammar may be faultless and the idiom above reproach. Yet what is written may still fail to convey a ready and precise meaning to the reader. That it does so fail is the charge brought against much of what is written nowadays, including much of what is written by officials. In the first chapter I quoted a saying of Matthew Arnold that the secret of style was to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can. The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual.

Ivor Brown, a connoisseur of words, has invented several names for this sort of writing. In one book he calls it "jargantuan", in another "barnacular" and in another "pudder".(14) If anyone wants to know more precisely what these words mean (and all should) he should study the translation of the Lord's Prayer into pudder in 'Say the Word'. The specific forms that it commonly takes in official writing will be examined in the following three chapters. In this one we are concerned (if I may borrow a bit of pudder from the doctors(15)) with the aetiology of the disease and with prescribing some general regimen for the writer that will help him to avoid catching it.

Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity? It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay (its genuineness is guaranteed) on a bird and a beast:

"The bird that I am going to write about is the Owl. The Owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.

"I do not know much about the Owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the Cow. The Cow is a mammal. It has six sides-right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not vet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.

"The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass".

The writer had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style. But why do we write, when we are ten, "so that the mouth can be somewhere" and perhaps when we are thirty "in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally"? What barnacular song do the puddering sirens sing to lure the writer into the land of Jargantua? That, as we know, is the sort of question which, though puzzling, is not beyond all conjecture. I will hazard one or two.

The first affects only the official. It is a temptation to cling too long to outworn words and phrases. The British Constitution, as everyone knows, has been shaped by retaining old forms and putting them to new uses. Among the old forms that we are reluctant to abandon are those of expressing ourselves in State documents. Every Bill begins with the words:

"Be it enacted by the King's Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:"

It ends its career as a Bill and becomes an Act when the Clerk of the Parliaments is authorised by the King to declare "Le Roy le veult". That is all very well, because no one ever reads these traditional phrases; — they are no longer intended to convey thought from one brain to another. But the official, living in this atmosphere, properly proud of the ancient traditions of his service, sometimes allows his style of letter-writing to be affected by it —adverting and acquainting and causing to be informed. There may even be produced in his mind a feeling that all common words lack the dignity that he is bound to maintain.

That, I think, is one song the sirens sing to the official. Another they certainly sing to all of us. Ivor Brown reminds us how Wells' Mr. Polly "revelled in 'sesquippledan verboojuice'," and comments that he was behaving like William Shakespeare before him. There is something of Mr. Polly in most of us, especially when we are young. All young people of sensibility feel the lure of rippling or reverberating polysyllables. "Evacuated to alternative accommodation" can give a satisfaction that cannot be got from "taken to another house"; "ablution facilities" strikes a chord that does not vibrate to "wash basins". Far-fetched words are by definition recherché words, and are thought to give distinction; thus such words as implement, optimum and global acquire their vogue. A newly-discovered metaphor shines like a jewel in a drab vocabulary; thus blueprint, bottleneck, ceiling and target are eagerly seized, and the dust settles on their discarded predecessors — plan, hold-up, limit and objective. But it will not do. Official writing is essentially of the sort of which Horace said: "Ornatum res ipsa vetat, contenta doceri"— the very subject-matter rules out ornament; it asks only to be put across. "The style we like is the humdrum" was a warning given to me long ago by a wise and lovable Chief — Sir Alan Herbert's father.

Another song I am sure the sirens have in their repertoire the lure of laziness. As I observed in Chapter 1, clear thinking is hard work. A great many people go through life without doing it to any noticeable extent. And, as George Orwell, from whom I then quoted, has pointed out, what we are now calling pudder "will construct your sentences for you and even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent ."

Yet another siren-song is a call to the instinct of self-preservation. It is sometimes dangerous to be precise.

"Mistiness is the mother of safety", said Newman. "Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of 'Aye' and the Charybdis of 'No' along the channel of 'No meaning'."

Ecclesiastics are not in this respect unique.

So much for aetiology. Now let us turn to the question whether some general advice can be given to fortify the writer against infection. Two distinguished men tried their hands at this not very long ago-Fowler and Quiller-Couch. This is what Fowler says:

"Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid".

"This general principle may be translated into general rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."

"These rules," he added, "are given in order of merit; the last is also the least".

He also pointed out that

"all five rules will often be found to give the same answer about the same word or set of words. Scores of illustrations might be produced; let one suffice: In the contemplated eventuality (a phrase no worse than anyone can pick for himself out of his paper's leading article for the day) is at once the far-fetched, the abstract, the periphrastic, the long and the Romance, for if so. It does not very greatly matter by which of the five roads the natural is reached instead of the monstrosity, so long as it is reached. The five are indicated because (in) they differ in directness, and (2) in any given case only one of them may he possible".

Quiller-Couch, writing after Fowler, discussed these rules. He disagreed with the advice to prefer the short word to the long and the Saxon to the Romance.

"These two precepts", he says, "you would have to modify by so long a string of exceptions that I do not commend them to you. In fact I think them false in theory and likely to be fatal in practice".

He then gives his own rules, which are:

"Almost always prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Almost always prefer the direct word to the circumlocution.

"Generally use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little awaiting 'is's' and 'was's' and its participles getting in the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man's style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or 'composition'".

I cannot set myself up as a judge between these high authorities, but as one who is now concerned only with a particular sort of prose, and who has made a close study of its common merits and faults, I respectfully agree with Quiller-Couch in refusing primary importance to the rule that the Saxon word must be preferred to the Romance, if only because it is not given to many of us always to be sure which is which. Any virtue that there may be in this rule, and in the rule to prefer the short word to the long is, I think, already implicit in the rule to prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Even Fowler said that "the Saxon oracle is not infallible", and before ever he had propounded the rule or Quiller-Couch criticised it, Bradley had said what most people are likely to think is all that need be said on the subject:

"The cry for 'Saxon English' sometimes means nothing more than a demand for plain and unaffected diction, and a condemnation of idle taste for 'words of learned length and thundering sound' which has prevailed at some periods of our literature. So far it is worthy of all respect; but the pedantry that would bid us reject the word fittest for our purpose because it is not of native origin ought to be strenuously resisted".

But the rule that Quiller-Couch adds to the two of Fowler's that he accepts, however sound its content, lacks the crispness that he preaches. What we are concerned with is not a quest for a literary style as an end in itself, but to study how best to convey our meaning without ambiguity and without giving unnecessary trouble to our readers. This being our aim, the essence of the advice of both these authorities may be expressed in the following three rules, and the rest of what I have to say in the domain of the vocabulary will be little more than an elaboration of them.

  1. Use no more words than are necessary to express your meaning. for if you use more you are likely to obscure it and to tire your reader. In particular do not use superfluous adjectives and adverbs and do not use roundabout phrases where single words would serve.
  2. Use familiar words rather than the far-fetched, for the familiar are more likely to be readily understood.
  3. Use words with a precise meaning rather than those that are vague, for they will obviously serve better to make your meaning clear; and in particular prefer concrete words to abstract, for they are more likely to have a precise meaning.

As Fowler pointed out, rules like these cannot be kept in separate compartments; they overlap. But in the next three chapters we will follow roughly the order in which the rules are set out and examine them under the headings "Avoiding the superfluous word", "Choosing the familiar word" and "Choosing the concrete word".