Be short. Be simple. Be human. Ernest Gowers’ most famous maxim on the art of good writing he later expanded into book form with Plain Words.
Before Lynn Truss and her Eats, Shoots and Leaves; before James Cochrane and his Between You and I was Ernest Gowers and his Plain Words – the progenitor of witty books of advice about how to write correctly, the grammatical pitfalls to avoid and the common errors of language to tread warily around.
Though Plain Words first appeared in 1948, it has since been revised and updated a number of times. This new edition has seen Gowers’ great-granddaughter Rebecca Gowers take up the mantle of editor. That in itself is not without interest, as if a passion for and authority on clarity of expression in the written word could be passed down four generations as an inherited trait. However, this is a labour of love, and the preface suggests that Rebecca Gowers has proved the driving force behind this new edition appearing in print.
Plain Words was originally intended as a resource for civil servants to combat the bureaucratic and needlessly legalistic language of the civil service’s letter writing, though Gowers wisely and lucratively saw the potential of an untapped wider readership turning his attention to analysing bad English generally. Thus his advice on penning official letters may seem a little niche (and these days hearken back to a lost art – are there any rules for writing emails?), but the general thrust of his treatise is sound advice for anyone who wishes to improve the standard of their written English or who is merely interested in language.
Language doesn’t stand still but is constantly evolving. In the sixty six years since Gowers first published his advice, many of his specific points and examples now seem archaic even if the general argument remains sound. His prose is (appropriately enough, given the subject matter) concise, lucid and easy to understand, though certainly fussier than we are used to reading in these days of matey familiarity. At times where Gowers’ original text has dated, footnotes are supplied, which brings in a second narrative voice, though the editor is separated from the original by a time-span of decades.
In other instances, Gowers proves to be remarkably prescient. “It should not be necessary on the London Underground,” he writes, “to be minded to take one’s personal possessions – as opposed to what kind?” Gowers would be appalled to learn that the phrase remains common parlance amongst train drivers, and everyday language is now riddled with redundancies and superfluous words. “They’re both the same,” is a personal bugbear. How can one be the same but the other different?
Pendants and grammar Nazis in particular will relish Plain Words. Split into easily digestible sections, Plain Words centres on permutations to do with the choice of words, but also covers punctuation and the correct (and incorrect) uses of grammar. Hopefully Plain Words remains more than an historical curiosity, but will serve to warn and to educate modern readers. The problem with books like this is that they inevitably preach to the converted. Why aren’t civil servants and customer services employees issued with this book as soon as they sign up?