5.3 Choosing The Familiar Word
From "Choice Of Words" in Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"Literary men, and the young still more than the old of this class, have commonly a good deal to rescind in their style in order to adapt it to business. But the young, if they be men of sound abilities, will soon learn what is not apt and discard it; which the old will not. The leading rule is to be content to be commonplace—a rule which might be observed with advantage in other writings, but is distinctively applicable to these."Henry Taylor, The Statesman, 1836

BOSWELL tells of Johnson:

"He seemed to take pleasure in speaking in his own style; for when he had carelessly missed it, he would repeat the thought translated into it. Talking of the comedy of 'The Rehearsal', he said, 'It has not wit enough to keep it sweet'. This was easy — he therefore caught himself, and pronounced a more round sentence; 'It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction'."

The mind of another famous lover of the rotund phrase worked the opposite way.

"'Under the impression,' said Mr. Micawber, 'that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon . . . in short', said Mr. Micawber in a burst of confidence, 'that you might lose your way . . .'."

The official should not hesitate which of these remarkable men to take as his model. He should cultivate Mr. Micawber's praiseworthy habit of instinctively translating the out-of-the-way into the everyday.(19) Thus we might find that, even though the Board of Trade could still not resist announcing that certain surplus government factories are now "available for re-allocation", they would not leave it at that. "In short", they would add in a burst of confidence, "they are to be relet".

The present inclination of the official is in the opposite direction. He is a Johnsonian rather than a Micawberite, and so handicaps himself in achieving what we have seen must be the writer's primary object, to affect the reader precisely as he wishes. The simple reader is puzzled, the sophisticated one is annoyed. Here is pent-up annoyance blowing off a genial jet of steam in the leading columns of The Times:

"It has always been the custom of the English to enrich their language with importations from abroad, and a similar policy has variegated their gardens, their forests, and their fauna. Their taste in exotics has in the main been sound enough and where, here and there down the generations, a lapse has occurred its consequences have rarely been far-reaching. If the affection which some of our fore-fathers felt for the monkey-puzzle seems to us nosy misplaced, we are not greatly incommoded by its after-effects; no jungles of this spiderish growth have sprung up to hem us in. If we think that 'boudoir' is a rather sickly, simpering word, or 'portmanteau' not fit for use except in limericks about young men of Taranto, we can drop them without difficulty from our vocabulary.
"But some foreign importations have shown a terrifying and uncontrollable vitality, so that the sins of their original sponsors are visited with dreadful rigour upon succeeding generations. The kindly nature-lover who first liberated a pair of grey squirrels has a great deal to answer for, including a large share of the salaries of numerous Civil Servants engaged on the task known to them, rather hopefully, as pest-elimination. In the etymological field a similar bad eminence is reserved in the minds of all right-thinking men, for the individual who first introduced into the English language the word 'personnel'. It is possible, just possible, that a more degrading, a more ill-favoured synonym for two or more members of the human race has at one time or another been coined; but, if it has, it has never gained the ubiquitous and tyrannical currency of this alien collective. Personnel, though in theory they are men and women, have only to be called personnel to lose their full status as human beings. They do not go, they proceed. They do not have, they are (or more often are not) in possession of. They do not ask, they make application for. Their minds, in so far as they may be deemed to have minds, are stocked not with the glories of knowledge but with irrelevant and unmemorable statistics, such as their father's nationality at birth and the date on which they were last inoculated against yellow fever. Once they either kept things or gave them up; now they must retain or surrender them. Want (it is true) they do not know, nor need; but deficiencies and requirements are just as inconvenient. They cannot eat, they can only consume; they perform ablutions; instead of homes they have place(s) of residence in which, instead of living, they are domiciled. I hey are not cattle, they are not ciphers, they certainly are not human beings; they are personnel".

It would be churlish to accuse an onslaught so disarming of not being quite fair. But may it not be argued that when we admitted women auxiliaries to our armed forces the expression "men and material" became unsuitable; we found a gap in our vocabulary and sensibly filled it, as we have so often done before, by borrowing from the French? Still, it cannot be denied that this word, like so many other high-sounding words of vague import, has exercised an unfortunate fascination over the official mind, or that the other examples given by the writer of the article strike home. The mischief of words of this sort is that they become such favourites that they seduce their users from clarity of thought; they mesmerise them and numb their discrimination. I have made a collection of some of the words that are now being conspicuously overworked. It is far from complete, but I think it contains the chief offenders.

It is pedantry to object, on etymological grounds, to the use of this word merely because the alternatives are more than two. But it is slipshod to use alternative as a dignified synonym for other, different or substitute. This is now rife in official writing. At the beginning of the war the finding of alternative accommodation for those displaced by requisitioning or bombing caused many a headache. The jingle has proved disastrously infective. The word is taking its place with vague generic nouns like emergency and vague prepositional phrases like in relation to as a device for saving the writer the trouble of thinking of the right word. The Ministry of Health announced in the spring of 1947 that owing to the severe winter the house-building programme for the year had been abandoned, and added that no "alternative programme" would be issued. They might have said other, new, fresh or revised, but altertiative must be wrong. There is nothing for it to be an alternative to; the old programme is torn up. Alternative must imply a choice between two or more things, as in the following example:

"Authorities may order their requirements from one or more of the firms in Appendix II. An order addressed to Firm A may specify Firms B and C as second and third choices. Where no alternative firm is given the order will, if necessary, be re-allocated".

Even in its parent phrase, alternative accommodation, the adjective is generally incorrect, for the person to whom the accommodation is offered has usually no alternative to taking it.

"Billeting Authorities are requested to report any such eases as they are unable to rebillet, in order that alternative arrangements may be made".

Other is the right word here.

The phrase alternative accommodation is fast becoming a pair of inseparables of the type (to borrow from Ivor Brown) of sickening thud, stony silence, inspissated gloom and pettifogging attorney. Its versatility is wonderful.

"Experience has shown that many applications have been received for exemption certificates (sc. from the obligation to provide sanitary conveniences) on the ground that alternative accommodation is available.. . . Public sanitary conveniences should not be considered satisfactory alternative accommodation".

The use of this word as a synonym for expect is now so common that it may be a waste of time to fight longer. But it is a gross example of the encroachment of a dignified word on the province of a simple one, and I should like even now to put in a plea that the official will set a good example by never using anticipate except in its correct sense, that is to say as conveying the idea of forestalling an event: a safe rule is to use it only with a substantive object, never with an infinitive or a that-clause. I give two examples, the first of its right use and the second of its wrong.

"It is therefore most important that the employment records at the local office of the Ministry of Labour and National Service should be consulted, so that the probable number of new entrants to be accommodated at any centre may be anticipated". "It is anticipated that a circular on this and other matters will be issued at an early date".

This is a useful metaphor to indicate the point of constriction of something that ought to he flowing freely. But it has perils, as Mr. Henry Strauss pointed out in this letter to The Times:

"In order to illustrate the progress (or whatever it is) of our language I am compiling a brochure on Bottlenecks. I shall accordingly be grateful for any significant additions to these examples from recent journalism :—
  1. 'The biggest bottleneck in housing', meaning the worst, most constricting, and presumably narrowest bottleneck.
  2. 'Bottlenecks must be ironed out' (leading article its the Daily Press).
  3. 'Bottlenecks ahead' and 'Bottleneck in bottles' ((recent headlines ).
  4. 'The economy of the Ruhr is bound to move within a vicious circle of interdependent bottlenecks'.
  5. 'What is planned is actually a series of bottlenecks. The most drastic bottleneck is that of machine tools'.
  6. 'One bottleneck . . . which is particularly far-reaching and decisive'.

The moral of this, and of the comment on target , is that unless a metaphor has become dead (that is to say has so entered into the language as no longer to be felt to be a metaphor) words should not be used with it that are incongruous literally. If you want to use the metaphor bottleneck you must remember that the most obstructive bottleneck is the smallest, not the biggest. Incongruities like these make a perspicacious reader laugh at something you want him to take seriously; you therefore fail in your purpose of affecting him precisely as you wish.

Casualty strictly means an accident, and not the person to whom the accident happened, though its extension to cover that meaning is now well established. But official writers must not allow themselves to be mesmerised into encouraging it to drive out simple words like killed, wounded, injured or hurt; to say for instance that someone "became a casualty" when what they mean is that he was injured, or that the casualties, rather than the injured, were taken to hospital after an accident. The only merit in its extended sense is that it covers both killed and wounded, but that may also be a demerit if it is proper to distinguish between the two.

The proper meaning of to claim is to demand recognition of a right. It should not be used in any other sense in official writing in this country, although the fight to prevent it from usurping the place of assert has been lost in America and seems likely to be lost here also. The B.B.C. News Bulletins use claim for assert almost every day. But it would take more than this to justify The Times in giving the headline Unofficial Strikes Claim to a report of a speech by a member of Parliament who said that there was abundant evidence that unofficial strikes were organized and inspired by communists as part of a general plan originating from abroad. I do not see how those three words by themselves can have any meaning at all; to me they convey a vague suggestion of the discovery of oil or gold by someone who ought not to have been looking for it. As has been pointed out by Lord Dunsany, Frank Whitaker and others, headlines have become a language of their own, not subject to the ordinary rules of construction. If — to take another recent example from The Times-the announcement Bull Grants Increase is construed grammatically, it does not seem to deserve a headline at all: one would say that that was no snore than was to be expected from any conscientious bull. I shall have something to say later about the corrupting influence of headlines on English prose.

Here I quote once more from my 1943 address:

"The Emergency Powers Act had to have a generic title because it was for use in all sorts of emergencies, whether due to war or civil commotion. But once the word got a footing it provided a splendid cloak for every kind of thing, from war downwards, that it was not quite nice to mention specifically. Look at these three extracts from a single memorandum:

'In the preceding paragraphs the action which would require to be taken in the event of an emergency has been sketched, because a picture of this action naturally follows on a discussion of the transport arrangements and will provide an indication of the manner in which the survey of accommodation now completed by the authority would be used in order to enable the plan to be put into operation at very short notice'.

"What the paragraph means as a whole is obscure in the extreme, but it seems pretty clear that here emergency means bombing. The circular goes on to give this advice about expectant mothers:

"'It will be necessary for each small group to be supervised and accompanied by at least one person qualified to guide them and to deal with any emergencies which may arise-preferably a midwife'.

"Here the word emergencies seems to be used in a quite different sense.

"Finally, we have the following:

"'An alternative method would be to ask every woman as a routine at booking (i.e. making arrangements for confinement) whether she would wish to be evacuated in an emergency'.

"Here we are left guessing which sort of an emergency is meant, and even wondering whether evacuated is used in the same sense as before".

Fifty years ago a writer would have been taken to task who used this word in the sense of remove. A place could properly be said to be evacuated, but not the people in it. This is no longer so, but the word has become too popular with official writers, and everyone who finds himself using it should pause and consider whether some more commonplace word (such as remove) would not serve his purpose better.

No one listening to the news broadcasts in March, 1947, could fail to note that the unfortunate people whose homes were flooded were never taken to other houses; they were all evacuated to alternative accommodation.

This should not he used as a synonym for think. Thinking is a rational process, feeling an intuitive one. Official decision should not be described as the products of intuition, however they may actually have been arrived at.

Global and overall (adj.)
These are new favourites which are being given jobs better performed by well-established words like comprehensive, total, worldwide, universal, average, general and others. Both newcomers have their places, and should be kept strictly in them. Global signifies treating a group of units not individually but as an entity. It made its first popular appearance at the time of the passing of the Coal Act, 1938; it was properly used to describe the method by which the purchase price of coal royalties was determined. It was later applied no less properly by the Uthwatt Committee to the system they proposed for the acquisition of betterment values by the State. The adjective overall indicates the measurement of an object between its extreme points. It is a debasement of language to employ useful words like these in such a way as to blunt the fineness of their significance. They are now undergoing the process that in an earlier chapter I called boring out weapons of precision into blunderbusses. Overall is already used in a way that has no meaning at all, and becomes mere padding, as in the common use of overall average where average alone is enough.

Here (from The Times) is an example of the correct use of overall:

"With an overall length of 534 ft., a tonnage of 13,700, and passenger accommodation for 250, the Media will, it is believed, play an important part in the company's North Atlantic trade".

This word offends some purists, but I do not see why it should, provided that its mesmeric influence is kept in cheek. 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.

This verb, meaning to carry out or fulfil, used to be hardly known outside Scottish Law. As recently as 1926 Fowler "could not acquit of the charge of pedantry" a writer who used the expression "implementing the peace terms". It is a word that has been regrettably helped over the barrier by officials. It is now too firmly established to be driven out, but the occasional use of carry out or fulfil instead would be refreshing.

This verb, which means to combine parts into a whole, is often used in preference to less unusual words, such as order, arrange, organise and co-ordinate, which would better express the writer's meaning.

This word has a very wide range of proper meanings as a noun, and should not be made to do any more work-the work, for instance, of subject, topic, consideration and dispute. A halt should also be called to the spread of its use as a verb in the sense in which Army jargon uses it. The principles I am trying to inculcate require that given should have been used instead of issued with in the sentence:

"You were issued with coupons to bring your wardrobe to the standard level".

This word cannot be accused of having won its popularity meretriciously. On the contrary, it is used as a thought-saver because it is so faded. It should be given a rest altogether for a time in the hope that it may recover from its present invertebrate state and recapture something of its old vigour. It is tired out by being put to every sort of base purpose. One is to use it with a noun as a periphrasis for a single verb.

"Such employment does not involve the necessity of obtaining a certificate of fitness"

Necessitate is better than involve the necessity of, if only because it uses one word instead of four. But "A certificate of fitness is not needed for such employment" is better still.

"Amendment of the Act is thus involved in this proposal. Moreover, the compensation involved would he considerable. The introduction of the scheme would involve frustration . . . of the policy of other Acts .

The word is here used three times in three consecutive sentences, and in none of them does it do anything but get in the way. We can dispense with all of them, thus:

"The proposal would thus need an amendment of the Act. Moreover the compensation would be considerable. The introduction of the scheme would frustrate the policy of other Acts".

The police are fond of involve. Among recent announcements were one that "an accident took place in which a blue saloon car and a woman cyclist were involved", and another that "the appearance of the bicycle indicated that another vehicle was involved". These are roundabout ways of saying, in the one case, that a blue saloon car collided with a woman cyclist, and, in the other, that the bicycle looked as if another vehicle had hit it.

The far-fetched word terminate, having superseded the familiar end, is itself being superseded by the more far-fetched liquidate. This word is now apparently regarded as suitable for denoting the ending of anything from massacring a nation to giving an employee notice. It is perhaps the worst current example of a word of vague import superseding precise words, for the words that it seems likely to throw out of work are countless. Politicians and the Press are at present greater offenders than officials, but there are signs that the infection is spreading; the B.B.C. has spoken of the liquidation of Britain's suzerainty over the Indian Native States. Here is an example from Local Government:

"These still stand as examples of solid building construction, which will stand the test of many more years of wear and tear before their usefulness has been finally liquidated."

Liquidation is the process of ascertaining a debtor's liabilities and apportioning his assets to meet them, and the official will do well to use it in no other sense. The only other meaning recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement is "the action or fact of partaking of liquor", and that can be expressed in other ways.

Prior to and following
These should not be used as substitutes for before and after. Those simple and familiar words are quite capable of doing their own work. Following is not a preposition. It is the participle of the verb follow, and must have a noun to agree with.

"Following judgments of the High Court, Ministers of Religion are not regarded as employed under a contract of service".

In consequence of, in accordance with or in conformity with would be the appropriate words here. The grammatical meaning of the sentence is that Ministers were following the judgments. No doubt some followed them carefully, but that is not what the writer meant.

Perhaps the fight against following as a preposition ought to be regarded as lost, for the same reason as the fight against claim for assert: that the B.B.C. habitually uses it. But it should still be avoided by the official because it still rightly offends the purist.

Recondition and rehabilitate
This is what Ivor Brown says about these words:

"The present darling of the Departments ... is Rehabilitation, a word originally applied to the restoration of a degraded man's rank, and privileges. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was occasionally used to mean restoration of other kinds. Suddenly it has become the administrator's pet. A year or two ago nothing was mended, renewed or restored. Everything had to be reconditioned. Now reconditioning has been supplanted by rehabilitation which has the merit of being one syllable longer; the blessed word 'goes' officially with everything from houses to invalids. I can see no reason why the Ministry of Health should not still seek to heal people instead of rehabilitating them. But heal-poor old Bible monosyllable! Will the next translation of the Bible be allowed to heal the sick? No it will have to rehabilitate those who are suffering from psycho-physical maladjustment".

But it is only fair to remark that rehabilitation, thus used, means something more than healing. It means a course of treatment or instruction for the purpose of restoring people already healed of a disease or wound to a life of active usefulness. Because this extension of the healing art was a new conception, it was given a new name, reasonably enough, however ill-chosen the name may have been. What there is no excuse for is that "the blessed word goes officially with everything from houses to invalids".

The vogue use of this word is new, and unrecognised by the dictionaries. One dictionary meaning is "repulse or recoil of a thing after impact" and another "the return or reverberation of a sound". Perhaps it is a combination of these two ideas that has led to the present common use of the word to signify those indirect consequences of a decision that bring unexpected embarrassment to the maker of it, especially when they multiply themselves. In this sense it is useful, and I have no quarrel with it. Many officials must have echoed in their own way the cry of Macbeth, who knew more about repercussions of this sort than most people,

"Bloody instructions which being sent return
To plague th' inventor".

Besides, the word is indispensable to the Treasury in explaining their reasons for refusing sanction to a proposal in itself unexceptionable. But it must not be allowed to mesmerise. I put it in here because I have just read a book by an eminent soldier who seems to have fallen so deeply under the spell of this picturesque word as to have forgotten the existence of humdrum but useful words like consequence, result and effect.

This word has developed mesmeric powers, especially as a verb, and is throwing out of work straightforward words like wreck, destroy and damage. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as

"deliberate and organised destruction of plant, machinery, etc., by dissatisfied workmen, hence, generally, any malicious or wanton destruction".

The official should set a good example by never using it otherwise than in its original sense, or one closely akin to it, and, even so, not treating it as a verb; for this offends the purists, even though the dictionaries recognise it as one.

This word means to make unfruitful. It has come much into favour recently among officials to express the idea of a veto on the use of something for a profitable purpose, and shows signs of the usual usurping tendencies of such words; you may already find examples of sterilised used merely as a synonym for wasted. It also needs watching for another reason. To speak of sterilising coal needed for the support of buildings is to use an appropriate metaphor; the coal is being made unfruitful for the purposes for which we use coal. But to speak of sterilising land in the sense of preventing its being built on is to say exactly the opposite of what you mean; the land is being preserved in order that it may continue to be fruitful.

On this flourishing newcomer to the band of mesmeric words I must again call in aid the leading columns of The Times:

"Targetology: at precisely what stage the word 'target' infiltrated, under cover of more noticeably luxuriant verbiage, past the pickets of the purists to seize the commanding position in our vocabulary which it now holds none, probably, can say for certain. Students of jargon, a necessarily morbid class, may be able to explain how a word which originally meant 'a light round shield or buckler' has come to signify the quantitative object of an industrial plan. The first stage of this transition to — 'something aimed at or to be aimed at' — is easy enough to follow; most of us, at some stage in our careers, have discharged missiles or projectiles at 'a shield-like structure marked with concentric circles'. It is, as a matter of fact, our personal experience of targets which make their sudden appearance on the plane of economic theory so puzzling in some of its aspects.
"When, for instance, Mr. N speaks, as he is apparently obliged to, of the 'coal target' we know roughly what he means, for a moment's thought convinces us that the relation between coal and the coal target cannot be the same as the relation between a rifle and a rifle target. But he gets us into deeper water when he talks about the overall coal target', for, while the economist in us instantly visualizes something very large indeed, the marksman can hardly refrain from recalling that the bigger a target was the easier it was to hit. Still more disconcerting and indeed alarming is the fact that neither Mr. X nor anyone on his level seems to entertain the faintest hope of actually hitting their targets, even when these are overall or even global ones. In their most optimistic moods they speak of 'reaching' or 'attaining' the target, an achievement which, since the bow and arrow went out of use, has never been rated very high; nothing in our own experience of musketry suggests that shots which got as far as the mark did any good if they were also wide of it".

Since this was written many interesting new variants have appeared. They include "obtaining the target", "getting a long way behind the target", which seems to mean the same thing as falling a long way short of it, and even, in headlines, "Target in danger", which means presumably that the target is in no danger ot being hit, and "Target in Sight", which those who are trying to hit it seem so find a reason for exceptional enthusiasm. In fact, targets have got completely out of control. We must regard the life of this metaphor as having been as short as it certainly has been merry, and treat it as dead (see note on bottleneck), driven into an early grave by overwork. Thus we can all do anything we like to a target without giving offence to anyone. But that will not excuse journalists who bring the metaphor to life again by saying that only so many tons of coal are needed to "top the year's bull's-eye", forgetting that bull's-eyes, like golf balls, give more satisfaction when hit in the middle than when topped.

This word means one-sided, which for ordinary purposes is a more intelligible expression. Unilateral should be confined to the jargon of diplomacy and physiology, to which it belongs, and its sorties should be resisted. Under its influence a sentiment that might have been plainly stated as "we will not be the only country to disarm" was recently expressed (by a politician) in the words "we will not adopt a policy of unilateral disarmament", and the repudiation of a debt was described (by a professor) as "unilateral refusal to pay".

The following is a list of some more words that are overworked in official documents, and beside them other words that might be used instead, if only, in some eases, as useful change-bowlers. I am not, of course, suggesting that they are necessarily synonyms; the overworked words are often wrongly used.

AcquaintInform or tell
Advert Refer
Adumbrate Sketch; outline; foreshadow
Ameliorate Better; improve
Assist Help
Blue-print Plan
Ceiling Limit
Cross-section Sample
Commence Begin
Deem Think
Conditioned by Dependent on
Derive (intr.) Come; originate; spring
DevelopTake place; occur; happen; grow
Entail Impose; necessitate
Envisage Contemplate; face
Eventuate Come about; happen; occur; result; turn out
Evince Show; manifest; display
FactorFact; consideration; circumstance; feature; element; constituent; cause
Function (verb) Work; operate; act
Inform Tell
In isolation By itself
Initiate Begin; start
Locality Place
Major Important; chief; main; principal
Majority, The Most
Materialise Come about; happen; occur
Minimise Underestimate; disparage; belittle; make light of
Practically Virtually; almost; nearly; all but
A percentage ofSome
A proportion of
Purchase Buy
Reaction Opinion; view
Render Make
Reside Live
Residence Home
State Say
Stress (verb) Emphasise
Sufficient Enough
Terminate End
Transmit Send; forward
Visualise Imagine; picture

A chapter on the wisdom of choosing simple and familiar words can fitly be ended by this striking example of the unfortunate results of not doing so. I quote from the Manchester Guardian.

"It is a pity that the Ministry of Supply's document 'explaining' what is a genuine simplification should include passages of incomprehensible jargon like this:

"The sub-authorisations required by its sub-contractors to reauthorise their orders as in (I) and (II) above. It should be borne in mind that 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)'.

The sense of despair produced by this sort of thing does far more to defeat the intentions of planning than some of the departments concerned seem to realise."