Plain words

by Ernest Gowers 19 minutes read

Published in The Clarity Journal 62 – November 2009

Shortly after the Second World War, the British Treasury invited Ernest Gowers to write a train- ing pamphlet for the civil service on the use of English by officials. The  result,  Plain  Words, was published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) in April 1948. A review in The Times said that it “deserves to become a best-seller”. It was an immediate success and by August  1950 had already been reprinted 12 times.

In 1952, Gowers was invited to address London County Council teachers on the topic “Plain Words”. The manuscript has been held in the Gowers family archives, and is published here for the first time thanks to Professor Ann Scott, Gowers’ granddaughter and author of his biogra- phy Plain Words and Forgotten Deeds.

I have been asked to speak to you this evening on the subject of “Plain Words”. That no doubt is because a few years ago I wrote a little book with that title. But it is only fair that I should begin with the confession that I am almost wholly uninstructed in the subject on which I am about to address you. I have never taught it, and it would be not far off the truth to say that I never learned it.

As I look back on the now distant days of my own education, there is very little direct in- struction in the handling of words that stands out in my memory. I have dim recollections of being set at a very tender age to do something called “parsing and analysis”, a form of mental gymnastic that I thought at the time excep- tionally revolting—though I fancy it may in fact have been useful, like the scaffolding that can be taken down when it has helped to build something more durable.

I remember, more vividly (it is indeed an unforgettable memory) being called on  at  the age of ten to write my first essay, an ordeal  that ended with tears of shame that I should have been so poorly endowed by Providence with the blessed gift of creative imagination—a misfortune that still depresses me from time to time, though I no longer show my regret in the same way.

Later in my school career, I remember clearly being taught to avoid the solecism committed by the translators of the New Testament in the sentence “whom say men that I am”. At Cambridge, I recollect being taught not to split infinitives and (more usefully) to curb the exuberant rhetoric to which youth is prone.

But I remember little other instruction than this in the art of expressing myself, though I daresay there may have been a little here and there.

So you must make allowances if, to those of you who have made a study of teaching English, I show signs of being ill-equipped for my present task.

The doctrine of plain words

I have spent much of what is now a longish  life amid the torrent of words, written or spoken, that are the life-blood of our present-day democracy, sometimes battling with it, some- times adding to it myself. And I have found much interest in the study of the use of words as a vehicle for conveying thought from one mind to another. It was as a result of that study that I wrote my book. I chose its title after much thought and rejecting many alternatives.

In a way, that choice has proved unfortunate. “Plain Words” has become a sort of cliché associated with my name, and I have been taken to task by some critics for preaching a doctrine I never intended. It has been said that the cult of plain words will produce a style just as ar- tificial and unnatural, and therefore just as bad, as the use of words that are not plain,

if those are a writer’s natural method of expression. Thus I seem to have unwittingly added yet another to those vague and dangerous clichés that are so rife nowadays, to which we can all attach any meaning we please, and so save the trouble of thought.

All I had in mind by the doctrine of plain words was this: that one ought to be clear about what one means to say and then say it  in a way readily intelligible to the person one says it to. I advocated it because I could not help noticing how much of what is written nowadays cannot be readily intelligible to the person addressed—if indeed intelligible at all—and sometimes, one cannot help suspecting, not over clear to the writer himself.

I readily concede to my critics the truth that words serve diverse purposes, and that for some of them plainness is out of place. We all know that Voltaire said that words were given to us to conceal our thoughts, an opinion echoed by the character in one of Oscar Wilde’s plays who said “Nowadays to be in- telligible is to be found out”.

That is undoubtedly one facet of the truth. But it is one that needs no preaching. The use of words in this way is only too common. It is for instance part of the stock-in-trade of politicians everywhere, especially in those totalitarian countries where the rulers are under the hard necessity of fooling all the people all the time. There, opiate language is used deliberately and scientifically as a means of destroying the power of independent thought.

You will remember that George Orwell, in his picture of 1984, imagined a new language called Newspeak, forced on the then totalitarian world, intended not only to provide a medium of expression for the world view and mental habits proper to the devotees of the conquering doctrine, but to make all other modes of thought impossible, and indeed ultimately to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all.

That is one of the uses of language for which plain words are out of place. And there are others not so extreme. The late C E Montague, who knew more about the handling of words than most people, used to deprecate what he called the habit of writers to rub into their readers’ minds the last item of all that they mean. A courteous writer, he said, “will have his non-lucid intervals. At times he will make us wrestle with him in the dark before he yields his full meaning.”

That is all right so long as the courteous writer does it on purpose, and is writing for the sort of reader who likes that sort of thing. He may even go so far as to amuse himself with intellectual exercises such as inventing clumps of syllables with a vaguely onomatopoeic sug- gestion, as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein  did, and Lewis Carroll before them. No reasonable advocate of the cult of plain words would quarrel with ingenious experiments of that kind. But these things are for poets and other writers who want to sound emotional overtones, the very vagueness of which adds to the titillating effect of their impact on the reader. It is not for those who use words for more humdrum purposes.

For like everything else in the modern world, language has changed, not in its structure but in its purpose. It is no longer mainly a vehicle of poetry and emotion; it is a vehicle rather of science and journalism, by the discussion of social and political problems, and of the ex- position of the rights and duties of the citizens of the welfare state. The kind of writing I had in mind when I chose my title is that which  has as its purpose to convey information, not to awaken emotion—that functional writing which so many have to attempt nowadays as an incident of their daily life, and so few can hope to avoid having to read.

Have you observed what a spate we have had of recent years of books denouncing the style of writing prevalent today, and purporting to teach better ways? I find it an interesting phenomenon. It is no doubt a healthy one: it reveals a widespread opinion that something is radically wrong and a  praiseworthy wish to set it right. But one feature of it disquiets me. So many have rushed into the fray, and have laid about them so indiscriminatingly, that what I may call for convenience the cult  of plain words is in danger of being discred- ited by being overdone.

One such book just published made me open my eyes very wide at the promiscuous way in which the author’s lash fell on victims that seemed to me wholly innocent. He would, for instance, in his zeal for the language, banish  all Latin words, even such  old  friends, and, as I should have thought indispensables, as ad hoc, prima facie and sub judice. That is indeed isolationism run mad. Other campaigners in the cause of plain words would not, it seems, ever allow any long or ugly words to be used. That again, I think, is excess of zeal.

It is of course one of the articles of the creed of plain words that of two words that express  a writer’s meaning equally well he must prefer the pleasant to the ugly, the short to the long, the familiar to the unusual. But it will rarely  be true that two do express his meaning equally well, and if they do not he must pre- fer the one that conveys it better,  be it never  so ugly. A Cabinet Minister wrote to The Times a few years ago protesting against theword “organizational” because it was so ugly. It certainly is no beauty. But if we want a word meaning ‘of or pertaining to organisation’ what are we to do? We have plenty of indis- pensable ugly words in the language.

Other crusaders again would rule out the use of any words that are not of respectable antiquity in the English language. This too can be overdone: the language is constantly being enriched by new words. I cannot help feeling that some of those who have constituted themselves defenders of our mother-tongue, from Dean Swift to Sir Alan Herbert, have shown excessive insularity in their resistance to what is new. I am not sure that I am myself wholly free from guilt: I find myself getting more tolerant as I grow older. “What is new” generally means something that reaches us from the inventive and colourful minds of the Americans. Sometimes these inventions prove most valuable acquisitions. They should not  be rejected as undesirable immigrants merely because of their country of origin, but should be judged by the test of whether they fill a need.

Another way in which the campaign is mis- directed is its excessive concentration on the Civil Service. That is perhaps natural enough. Officials are specially vulnerable; they  write so much, and we all have to read so much of what they write. And as they generally tell us to do something we do not want to do or to refrain from doing something we do want to do, we are inclined to approach them in a critical spirit.

Mocking our officials is a national pastime of great antiquity, and arises no doubt from a commendable trait in our national character. But it can be carried too far. I do not deny that the official has a literary style of his own, but on the whole he is no worse than other people—he is better than the business man— and to concentrate the attack on him is unfair, and liable to defeat its purpose by putting his back up and making him think that the doc- trine of plain words is bunk.

The subject is a delicate one, as I discovered when I first tried to preach the doctrine. I found that although some were receptive, many were not. I was indeed warned that any attempt to teach good English would be liable to arouse the same sort of resentment in some people as, let us say, a flaunting of the old school tie, as though it were an exhibition of class snobbery. That struck me as odd.

The public schools no doubt inculcate many vir- tues, but I have not myself observed the power of lucid and correct self-expression to be conspicuous among them. Mr George Sampson has indeed gone so far as to say that “what- ever is trained in the average agreeable products of the public schools, it is certainly not the mind”. But that, I think, is a little unkind.

However that may be, I found it puzzling   that care about correct writing should be so widely regarded as pedantry. It is an unusual phenomenon. People generally like to learn the right way to do things. Those who want to ride a horse do not think it highbrow that they should be taught the correct posture of hands and legs. Those who want to play the piano do not regard the proper fingering of scales as pedantry. That, no doubt, is because the would-be horseman and aspiring pianist are convinced that what they  are  being taught are, on the whole, useful aids to con- trolling their horses and their fingers.

There does not seem to be the same conviction that being taught the technique of good English is a necessary aid to a useful accomplishment. May it perhaps be that this is because the wrong things are taught? Or per- haps it would be fairer to put my question  this way: may it be that the wrong things  were taught for so long that a resistance has been created which has not yet been broken down?

The importance of grammar

What do you now teach? I confess to being discreditably ignorant about the answer to that question. Do you still teach grammar, I wonder, and if so, what sort of grammar? I have been so bewildered in trying to follow the vicissitudes that grammar seems to have been passing through that I am no longer sure even that I know the meaning of the word.

Our forefathers were untroubled by these perplexities. A hundred and fifty years or so ago, William Cobbett said that “grammar perfectly understood enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly but so  to express it as to defy the ingenuity of man   to give our words any other meaning than  that which we intended to express”. That is unequivocal enough. If that were true, our Parliamentary draughtsmen would only have to undergo a thorough course of grammar, and a large part of the work of our Bench and Bar would automatically disappear.

The very name grammar school serves to re- mind us that grammar was long regarded as the only path to culture. But that was Latin grammar. When our mother tongue en- croached on the paramountcy of the dead languages, questions began to be asked. Even at the time Cobbett was writing, Sydney Smith was fulminating about the unfortunate boy who was “suffocated by the nonsense of grammarians, overwhelmed with every spe- cies of difficulty disproportionate to his age, and driven by despair to peg-top and marbles”.

Very slowly over the last hundred years, the idea seems to have gained ground that the grammar of a living language cannot be fitted into the Procrustean bed of a dead one.  The old-fashioned notions of grammar be- came a sort of Aunt Sally for any educational reformers who had a mind to heave bricks at. The old lady stood up with remarkable resilience. It is nearly fifty years since the Board of Education themselves took a hand in the sport, and threw an outsize brick with the declara- tion that “there is no such thing as English grammar in the sense which used to be at- tached to the term”.

The queer thing is that at the end of it all, we seem to have been left not with one grammar but with many. We have formal grammar as distinct from functional grammar, pure grammar as distinct from the grammar of a particular language, descriptive grammar as distinct from prescriptive grammar—distinctions I will not dwell on because I am not sure that I perfectly understand them. I must be content to quote the verdict of the departmental committee on the teaching of English in England that reported in  1921—a  review of that subject which, for wisdom and thor- oughness must, I think, still remain unsurpassed. They summed up what  they had to say about the teaching of English in these words:

For the teaching of correct speech in school  we should rely, first of all, on correction of mistakes when they arise; secondly on the great power of imitation; and thirdly at  a later stage, though not in the earliest stage, on the teaching of the general rules to which our standard speech conforms.

“The general rules to which our standard speech conforms”. In those words, there is plenty of room for difference of interpretation. I sometimes wonder whether, in the teaching of grammar, Procrustes may not still be about. I do not know. But I do know that only a few years ago, that great authority Sir Philip Hartog said he thought that “in the teaching of the mother tongue in this country it is still on de- tail that attention is mainly fixed”. Out of curiosity, I have dipped into one or two modern textbooks. In the first, the following passage struck my eye. The author is emphasising the importance of unity in a sen- tence. He says:

At the risk of seeming too dogmatic, I have come to the practice of laying down a rule as definite as this: that when a sentence may be resolved into a single subject with legitimate modifiers it has unity: sentences not thus reducible lack it.

I think I see what he means, but I cannot believe that the way he puts it is really helpful to the young aspirant after clarity of expression.

In the second book I opened, I came across the advice that the best way to get a boy out of the habit of saying “I have went” is to make him remember that the second of the principal parts of a verb never forms correct compound tenses. No doubt this is the proper approach to teaching a foreign language from a book.

But for a child learning his own language, may not so-called rules like these be just the sort of thing that make him think that good English is highbrow useless stuff.

The idiom of the native language comes flooding in on every side without having to be sought by curious means and docketed with odd labels. The main road to learning it must be by way of observation, practice and correction, rather than by memorising general principles into which it rarely fits and applying to it a test of logic that it consistently disregards. But it can hardly be the only way.  It must be supplemented by some instruction in what for convenience we may call grammar.

Grammar without tears

I recently read a little book by the latest recruit to the ranks of those who take their pleasure in bombarding this Aunt Sally.  He has armed himself with a large number of heavy and jagged bricks, and flings them with immense gusto. He is Mr Hugh Sykes Davies, of St John’s College, Cambridge, and lecturer in English at that university. The book is called Grammar without Tears. You may know  it:  if not I commend it to you warmly.

The title is misleading. Anyone who hopes to find in it a specific for an easy and painless way of learning grammar will be disappointed. He will discover that he is given the same dusty answer as Mr Punch gave to those about to marry. Mr Sykes Davies surveys the development of our language from the clumsy and tortuous synthetic beginnings of its Gothic origin, to the grace and flexibility of its present analytical structure, and argues that in this great and beneficent reform the hero is what he calls the  “lowly  man”  and the villain is the grammarian, who has con- stantly tried—fortunately with small success—to drive the lowly man along de- fined footpaths. And so Mr Sykes Davies, following boldly where his argument leads, would have what he calls a grammatical moratorium, in which we shall all be free to disregard the rules of grammar. In this way he hopes the lowly man might carry still fur- ther the good work he has performed for so long. As he says with truth, there is still much to be done.

For instance, the lowly man has rid us of those troublesome inflexions that used to mark the difference between the subjective and objective cases in nouns, and we now rely solely on the order of the words to tell us who was the person who did it and who was the person to whom he did whatever he did do. And we find it quite enough. But the relative pronoun has stubbornly refused to follow suit, except  in its neuter form. So we still have the troublesome task of remembering  when  to say he and when him,  when  she  and  when her, when they and when them, and—worst of all—when who and when whom. This is a puzzle that has on occasion  baffled  most great writers, from Shakespeare to Mr Win- ston Churchill.

And so with the verbs. Our verbs have dropped those absurd inflexions by when they used to denote the person who was their subject, except for the custom that still lingers of distinguishing the third person singular of the present indicative by adding an “s” to  it—a custom that makes writing more difficult without, so far as I can see, serving any useful purpose. But among the verbs too there are laggards on the path to the Prom- ised Land. There are the auxiliaries, and especially the verb to be, still insisting on all its comic and unnecessary variations of am, art, is, are, was and were. The lowly man still does his best.

Not long ago, I heard an old countryman say with contempt, as he watched a youth scything, “Keep her sharped, boy; keep her  sharped. Her baint sharped. Could ride to London on her with a bare behind”. Observe not only his vivid imagery, but his fine sim- plicity of diction. Her does duty for both subjective and objective cases. Baint will serve for any person of the present indicative of the verb to be in its negative form. How much more sensible is the old boy who says indifferently I baint, he baint, we baint than you or I who feel constrained to say I am not, he is not, we are not.

If only the grammarians could be silenced for a while, says Mr Sykes Davies, the lowly man will get on with the job, and rid our language of the few synthetic blots that still deface it.

Let us shake off all inhibitions, he says, and write as the spirit moves us, and we shall im- prove the language no end.

I may have touched up Mr Sykes Davies’ doctrine with a spot of colour, but that is it in essence. He writes with pleasant wit and ur- banity, and it is not always easy for the reader to know how far his tongue is in his cheek.

But if we take the doctrine at its face value,   we shall see that the trouble about it is that it comes too late. The heyday of the lowly man was the three hundred years following the conquest, when the gentry spoke French and the clergy spoke Latin and only the underlings spoke English. For them it was a free-for-all. It passed slowly, and its passage was com- pleted with universal compulsory education, the popular press, the cinema and the wire- less. What chance has the lowly man against all these influences which, whatever effect they have, will certainly not encourage such pleasant simplifications as saying her baint for it is not?

If the lowly man makes his voice heard at all, it is likely to be with an American accent on the wireless and the screen, a process already going on with results that may perhaps some- times be beneficent, but sometimes certainly are not.

Moreover, as I have said, some fundamental rules must be taught, whether you call them grammar or something else. If anyone is to be able to put sentences together intelligently, he cannot be left to rely wholly on imitation.

Even Mr Sykes Davies admits this. He concedes the necessity of qualifying his grammatical moratorium by first instructing children in:

some knowledge of the principles of language. These will partly concern the future: they will tell him what is desirable in language … and they will be partly historical: they will be concerned with what is possible, and will not shy from the inescapable necessity of starting from nowhere else than the position we stand  in at the moment, conditioned by the past.

That, I am sure must be true, but it seems to me to lack precision as a guide to those who would like to carry it out. It is perhaps significant of the difficulty of this subject that when authorities like the departmental committee and Mr Sykes Davies, who denounce the traditional teaching of grammar, try to tell us what sort of grammar ought to be taught, their words become not quite so plain as we should like.

The arbitrary nature of red-tape rules

The essence of the difficulty seems to be this: that although it is no doubt true that the grammarians swathe the language in unnecessary red tape, yet there are certain grammatical rules which are, so to speak, a code of universal good manners that must be observed if we are not to have linguistic barbarism; and it is not always easy to draw  a line between the two.

If a boy says to us “I done it”, we shall correct him firmly: he has violated what is undoubtedly an article of the code of good manners of the language, and we shall refuse to listen in the unlikely event of his pleading that he is only carrying on the good work of the lowly man, and helping to get rid of some of the unnecessary inflexions of  the verb to do. But if, let us say,  he splits an infinitive in an essay, we shall perhaps correct him less firmly; we need not refuse to listen if he pleads that he can express himself more clearly that way; and we may be content with telling him that this is all right so long as he knows that there is a not very sensible convention that infinitives ought not to be split, and if he splits them he runs the risk of being thought an ignoramus by the purists.

Let me draw an analogy from my own schooldays, which I keep on being reminded of by my subject this evening. When I first went to a public school I was instructed in various rules of behaviour. One was that I must touch my cap to a master whenever I met one. Another was that I must not turn up the ends of my trousers: that curious privilege  was reserved for the swells, and not to be ar- rogated by insignificant persons like me. Here again, the first precept belongs to a true code of good manners; the second was a silly and arbitrary convention: any boy of spirit could disregard it without being guilty of anything in the nature of bad manners. But it was just  as well that he should be aware of the pos- sible consequences to him of his disregard of public opinion.

I fear that both in the study of good English and in the observance of good behaviour in public schools, it is often the arbitrary conventions that assume the greatest importance. That these wrong values are prevalent among those who profess to care for the language, I have ample evidence in my own correspondence. I am disturbed to find how many people still believe that writing good English consists in observing the red-tape rules, who take a pharisaical pleasure in doing so them- selves and find a smug sense of superiority in exposing those who do not.

One lady wrote that she took a dim view of my own English because I had written “different to”. I had not: it was an enterprising compositor who had thus flaunted convention. But if I had, I should have felt no great sense of sin. Another correspondent accused me of splitting an infinitive because I had written “I warmly recommend”. While this spirit is abroad it is not surprising that there should be also a spirit of resistance against being taught what is known as “good English”.

Faults in written English today

The faults prevalent in the general run of written English today are more deep-seated than any failure to observe rules of the sort that these critics attach so much to. They are faults that make a writer fail to put across what he wants to put across, however perfect his grammar. I have tried to analyse them in my books, and time does not allow me to go into them now. But I should like to mention very briefly two that seem to me of funda- mental importance.

The first is poverty of vocabulary. I do not mean that the ordinary functional writer can be expected to have a great vocabulary. I do not see how he can. The fault is that he does not make proper use of the vocabulary he has. Instead of searching for the right word, he is content with a small stage army of stock words and clichés.

I have read somewhere a suggestion by a well-known educationalist that pupils when set to write essays ought to be supplied with a dictionary of synonyms and told to ponder carefully a number of words before choosing the one they think expresses their meaning most exactly. I think that might be a most salutary way of getting into their heads that words are delicate instruments of precision which must find their way into the right place in a reader’s brain, not heavy blunt instruments to bash him on the head with. I always have a dictionary of synonyms beside me myself when I write, and was once reproved for doing it by a schoolgirl daughter who regarded it as a sort of cribbing, a comment that argued a keen but misdirected conscience.

This laziness in the choice of words is, I am sure, one of the root troubles. It is the worse because the small stage army of words generally attracts the wrong recruits—meretricious, vague and novel words.

I think the other root fault is the practice of wrapping up in abstractions ideas that ought to be expressed in terms of people and things and action. I have elsewhere suggested that it would be useful if everyone who finds that he has an abstract noun as the subject of a sen- tence were to regard it as a danger signal warning him to ask himself whether what he wants to say could not be expressed more di- rectly. Then we might be saved from such monstrosities—to take what I consider my prize example—as being asked the question “was this the realisation of an anticipated li- ability?” when what the questioner  meant was “did you expect you would have to do this?”

Let me give you an illustration of what may happen if the lure of abstract words is not firmly resisted. I have found it in a book on the problems of adolescence:

Reserves that are occupied in a continuous uni-directional adjustment of a disorder are no longer available for use in the evervarying interplay of organism and environment in the spontaneity of mutual synthesis.

That is indeed an awful warning.

Clarity of thought in a democracy

I suppose what it all boils down to in the end is clarity of thought. “Accurate writing depends on accurate thinking,” said Horace in the Ars Poetica nearly 2,000 years ago, and many have repeated the same thing since. I believe that the question how far thought is possible without words is one about which philosophers and psychologists argue. But it must surely be true that, as the departmental committee said:

What a man cannot state he  does  not perfectly know, and, conversely, the inability to put his thoughts into words sets a boundary on his thought. … English is not merely the medium of our thought: it is the very stuff and process of it.

Teaching boys and girls to think clearly must be at once the most important and the most difficult of a teacher’s tasks. His pupils will grow up under a constitution that puts  its faith in the ordinary citizen and relies on his thinking sensibly. That theory runs through the whole structure, from the jury box to the ballot box. At the same time, the modern extension of the paternal functions of government tempts the ordinary citizen to the illusion that he need not think for himself, so largely is his way of life ordered for him.

Yet on his continuing to think for himself de- pends the continuance of democracy as we understand it. And so, if it is true, as I think it is, that the right teaching of  English  is  the best way of teaching clarity of thought, then exceptional responsibility and exceptional op- portunity do indeed rest with  those  who teach their mother-tongue.

© Ernest Gowers, 1952