Happy Birthday Sir Ernest Gowers. You would have been 131 this month. For me, that’s a good enough reason to celebrate your extraordinary work.
Gowers took the civil service by storm in the fifties, with his handy pamphlets on why and how public servants should write plainly. Here are my top five favourites of his delightful observations:
On the reluctance of officials to write in plain English:
‘The purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade. I suspect that this project may be received by many of them without any marked enthusiasm or gratitude.’
On why they’re reluctant:
‘[One reason is] 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’.”
On the need for precision in official communication:
‘…in [officials, there is] an unwillingness to venture outside a small vocabulary of shapeless bundles of uncertain content – words like position, arise, involve, in connexion with, issue, consideration and factor – a disposition, for instance, to “admit with regret the position which has arisen in connexion with” rather than to make the effort to tell the reader specifically what is admitted with regret.’
Slagging off the modern tendency for jargon:
‘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; instead of the plain phrase the cliche’.
Pointing out that children can write better than adults can:
‘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”?’
There are plenty of people in large organisations today who could do with following Gowers’ advice.