When Sir Ernest Gowers first wrote Plain Words, it was intended simply as a guide to the proper use of English for the Civil Service. Within a year, however, its humour, charm and authority had made it a bestseller.
Since then it has never been out of print. Six decades on, writer Rebecca Gowers has created a new edition of this now-classic work that both revises and celebrates her great-grandfather’s original. Here she talks about what the book means to her, and how she proceeded to write the revised version.
A few days after I was born, my great-grandfather, Ernest Gowers, wrote a sweet and chatty letter to my parents. At the end of it he said that he hoped that I would grow up to be “beautiful and good”. (Help!) What he did not say was that it would also be great if one day this brand new little person could grow up to revise his most famous work. Yet it seems I was destined for the job. Or at any rate, the time recently came when, in something of a panic, I rolled up my sleeves and got on with it.
I was daunted because so many people seem to be so very fond of the original Plain Words. In particular, as I have been told often, they are fond of my great-grandfather’s voice within it. Somehow I had to keep his dry wit and kindness to the fore, while making his advice fully serviceable to a modern audience. And even that was not the whole challenge. If a book offering guidance on how to write clearly and well does not demonstrate what it is explaining, the project is undone. Ernest produced his original in the years after the Second World War; inevitably there are places where its style no longer stands as a model for what it is advocating. I would therefore have to dare to tinker with his sentences, while being extremely careful with my own.
The most famous motto in the book is, “Be short, be simple, be human”. This was not intended as advice for producing great works of literature (though there certainly are literary writers who conform to this standard). Instead, Plain Words was commissioned by the Treasury for the use of civil servants. Many of them, in turning out “utility” writing as part of their job, had come to seem florid and rather less than human in their dealings with the public. The aim of the book was to help them change.
As I worked on my revision, I naturally asked myself whether the English of today’s civil servants, their “Whitehallese”, had improved over the decades. Unfortunately, it does not seem in all cases that it has. Though officials no longer use the sort of formalities that were common in the 1940s, e.g. “herewith for the favour of your utilisation”, many of them do still balk at simplicity. Why say “it must be capable of operationalisation… ” when you mean “you have to be able to make it work… ”? An example of really poor writing that I put in the book is this description from the Department for Transport of a requirement to “review current and foreseeable wider modelling requirements and policy analysis requirement to identify the functionality that highway assignment modelling needs to provide to meet them… ”. I hope I am not too stupid, but it took me ages to work out what I thought that (probably) meant.
Of course Plain Words would not have become an immediate bestseller, as it did, if its audience had been restricted to the civil service. When it was put on general sale, members of the public bought it in their hundreds of thousands. I can only suppose that this must have been because, while most people occasionally need to write in a direct, clear and reasonably formal fashion—a report, an essay, a letter of application or complaint, and so on—it must be a rare person who sets about such a task completely confident that the end result will be graceful and persuasive. In this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that Plain Words found a large audience. At the same time, one might wonder how it can be that a book on English usage conceived and written over six decades ago has never gone out of print.
I can venture one answer to this from my own experience. Though I am a writer by trade, a great pleasure for me in working on Plain Words was how much I learned from it as I went along. I had read it as a teenager. And from time to time since, I had consulted it for help with particular grammatical problems as they arose, which is a perfectly good way to use the book. But in order to master it for the revision, I needed to attempt to re-absorb completely all its lessons at once. Whether or not I really managed this, I certainly found myself wishing that I had paid more attention to its broader message over the years. Its advice on style now strikes me as an excellent place for any writer to begin—rather as one might try to learn to draw before attempting to paint.
Marina Kemp, my wonderful editor at Penguin, can attest that I had suffered terrible pangs in the course of working on my new edition, over individual commas and semi-colons, over particular words and phrases, over advice that might or might not any longer be useful. Yet once I got going, I found the nitty-gritty of the work both fascinating and fun. It also brought me closer to someone who, in a benign way, had loomed large in my imagination all my life. Though the name “Sir Ernest Gowers” may now have a distant, patrician ring to it, what I found in his sentences was a person whom I felt I got to know. In particular, I enjoyed his sense of humour, which never wore thin for me, no matter how many times I went over the text.
Beyond the actual jokes that Plain Words contains, the book has a sensibility that is sometimes wry, sometimes sardonic, but always designed to puncture pretension and cut through what is needlessly contorted. I trusted that this gave me license in my own brief updates to the text to try to be wryly humorous as well. I hope that my various added paragraphs will make readers of the new edition smile. But even more than that, I like to believe that they would have made my great-grandfather smile as well. Perhaps that could make up for desperate shortfalls in the matter of being beautiful and good!