Gowers’ legacy is ………

In a preface to an early edition of his The Complete Plain Words Sir Ernest Gowers  lucidly – and with the brevity that he recommended to others – laid out his intentions.

 “I am not a grammarian, and The Complete Plain Words, like its predecessors, makes no claim to be a grammar of the English Language, though for reasons I have explained in the text I felt bound reluctantly and diffidently, to give one chapter (IX) to some points of grammar and one (X) to punctuation. Apart from these two chapters, this book is wholly concerned with what is described in one of the quotations that head the first chapter as the choice and arrangement of words in such a way as to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another. Even so I must not be credited with too high an ambition: the scope of the book is circumscribed by its being intended primarily for those who use words as tools of their trade, in administration or business.’


The first edition, intended to woo officials and bureaucrats away from pompous and over-elaborate writing, was published in 1954. It was a book that may have been considered was necessary then, but it’s a book that’s even more relevant today than ever. A single reading of the following – extracted, with some editing, from a company magazine that was dropped on my desk recently – to understand why.

The start of the year signaled the creation of ..N… Business Unit at a time of complete uncertainty within the Industry and our Customer Base. The Leadership team has been focusing on managing large scale change programmes in addition to developing an integrated strategy to secure our future prosperity. Operationally the new organisation is now established and the synergies arealready starting to  reveal significant opportunities.


On the down side, we have embarked on a major Business resizing exercise to align our cost base with projected revenues. This has unfortunately resulted in the recent closure announcements for ….sites. These decisions were not taken lightly and every avenue had been explored, but in the current climate we have to react to market forces and maintain competitiveness in what is a harsh environment. Many other sites have experienced labour release programmes at all levels but hopefully we are now reaching more stable times.

 As you can imagine trading is presenting numerous challenges that will require us to analyse all areas of expenditure and eliminate all non-value added items and with this proactive mindset, we will not only secure 2009 but right-size the business for future years.


We are currently analysing the detailed feedback from the recent Employee Survey and it is highly encouraging to see that we have …. a highly motivated and committed team which will be an asset to us  as we move forward.


I would like to take this opportunity to welcome NNN& N to thganisation and hope that they  enjoy being part of what will be, a successful future for us all.

You just have to ask how the start of a year “signaled” anything, or what an “integrated strateg” is in any contex may be, or for that matter what’s meant by”integrateted strategiies” revelaing “opportunties” to realise that the author on this piece either knows a lot more than he or she can reveal in writing, or, more likely, has picked up a lot of stock phrases that will make the readers feel inadequate because they cannot understand them.

In Chapter 8 of The Complete Plain Words, Gowers, recommending that writers should prefer concrete words to abstract ones,  says that “to express one’s thoughts accurately is hard work, and to be precise is sometimes dangerous”

We are tempted to prefer the safer obscurity of the abstract. It is the greatest vice of present-day writing. Writers seem to find it more natural to say “Was this the realisation of an anticipated liability?” than “Did you expect to have to do this?”; to say “Communities where anonymity in personal relationships prevails” than “Communities where people do not know one another”.

If the piece of writing from which I quoted can be taken as typical – and my own experience tells me that it can – nothing much has changed since Gowers was writing. 


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