Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Complete Plain Words: a must-read classic

Sir Ernest Gowers' The Complete Plain Words is by far the best book to read on clear writing.
Sir Ernest Gowers, author of The Complete Plain Words
Sir Ernest Gowers
Read it, especially if you have to write a report, a thesis, a book or even something as short as a poster or an email advertising an event.

Here's why.

1) This is the real thing. If you only have time to read a short essay, read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language on this blog. But if you need to get the whole picture, understand the why as well as the how, and learn from many helpful examples, get The Complete Words. There is a reason the title of this book includes the word "complete" and the others don't.

2) If you are in the United States and have been told by your professor to read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, then be aware that this rather earlier (1918) book does not contain anywhere near as much useful material as Gowers and that it does contain some very quirky and unnecessary quibbles about using "which" and "that" that (or which) readers have found confusing. Read it only as you would read a novel, for fun rather than for instruction.

3) Gowers' book was tested in action. He wrote it for the British civil service, whose pompous prose was a barrier to public understanding of government policy. It had a great impact.

4) Don't be put off by the "Sir". Gowers was knighted for his services. He deserved it.

5) He starts with a digression on legal English, explaining why it is different from ordinary English. This, by the way, is as relevant in the United States and other countries where there is a legal system based on Common Law. 

6) Gowers gives excellent advice on preparation for writing a letter. These rules, by the way, are what you should use in answering emails. "Be sure that you know what your correspondent is asking before you begin to answer him...Begin by answering his question...So far as possible, confine yourself to the facts of the case you are writing about... Avoid a formal framework, if you can... Be careful to say nothing that might give your correspondent the impression, however mistakenly, that you think it right that he should be put to trouble in order to save you from it...Use no more words than are necessary to do the job...Keep your sentences short...Be compact; do not put a strain on your reader's memory by widely separating parts of a sentence that are closely related to one another...Do not say more than is necessary...Explain technical terms in simple words...Do not use what have been called the "dry meaningless formulae" of commercialese...Use words with precise meanings rather than vague ones... If two words convey your meaning equally well, choose the common one rather than the less common..." You need to read the full explanation in the original to understand why he makes these recommendations, but I think you can see what he is getting at.

7) Gowers writes at length about the correct choice of words. He is not dogmatic about this. He understands that language is a living, changing thing. He also does not claim to be the sole authority on which words are fit for purpose. He cites (but does not insist on) sets of rules by Fowler and Quiller Couch. Here they are:

  • 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.
Quiller Couch:
  • 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".
8) While Orwell says you should cut out unnecessary words, Gowers goes further by listing common forms of verbosity. For example, adjectives and adverbs. He cites the saying that "the adjective is the enemy of the noun", but instead of insisting on not using adjectives he advises you to cultivate the habit of "reserving adjectives and adverbs to make your meaning more precise". He also writes about verbosity in using prepositions, adverbial phrases, auxiliary verbs and phrasal verbs. If you don't know what all of these are, don't worry, he gives plenty of examples. He also shows how to avoid padding.

9) Gowers advises the use of simple words, though not when there is a need for technical terms that can not be simplified. (In such cases, though, they should be explained.) He also discourages showing off with familiar metaphors. If writers listened to this wise advice, many publications would be shorter.

10) For those who have difficulty using punctuation, Gowers provides ample help. He uses many examples to show how, and how not, to use the apostrophe, capitals, the colon, the comma (in many situations), the dash, the full stop (period in the United States), the hyphen, inverted commas, paragraphs, question marks, the semicolon and sentences.

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