How To Write Plain English
(from 'The King's English' by the Fowler Brothers (1908))

ANY one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—

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.

These rules are given roughly in order of merit; the last is also the least. It is true that it is often given alone, as a sort of compendium of all the others. In some sense it is that the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely. But if, instead of his Saxon percentage's being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted ; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written. Observing that translate is derived from Latin, and learning that the Elizabethans had another word for it, he will pull us up by englishing his quotations ; he will puzzle the general reader by introducing his book with a foreword. Such freaks should be left to the Germans, who have by this time succeeded in expelling as aliens a great many words that were good enough for Goethe. And they, indeed, are very likely right, because their language is a thoroughbred one; ours is not, and can now never be, anything but a hybrid; foreword is (or may be) Saxon; we can find out in the dictionary whether it is or not; but preface is English, dictionary or no dictionary; and we want to write English, not Saxon. Add to this that, even if the Saxon criterion were a safe one, more knowledge than most of us have is needed to apply it. Few who were not deep in philology would be prepared to state that no word in the following list (extracted from the preface to the Oxford Dictionary) is English: —

battle, beast, beauty, beef, bill, blue, bonnet, border, boss, bound, bowl, brace, brave, bribe, bruise, brush, butt, button.

Dr. Murray observes that these 'are now no less "native", and no less important constituents of our vocabulary, than the Teutonic words'.

There are, moreover, innumerable pairs of synonyms about which the Saxon principle gives us no help. The first to hand are ere and before (both Saxon), save and except (both Romance), anent and about (both Saxon again). Here, if the 'Saxon' rule has nothing to say, the 'familiar' rule leaves no doubt. The intelligent reader whom our writer has to consider will possibly not know the linguistic facts; indeed, he more likely than not takes save for a Saxon word. But he does know the reflections that the words, if he happens to be reading leisurely enough for reflection, excite in him. As he comes to save, he wonders, Why not except? At sight of ere he is irresistibly reminded of that sad spectacle, a mechanic wearing his Sunday clothes on a weekday. And anent, to continue the simile, is nothing less than a masquerade costume. The Oxford Dictionary says drily of the last word: 'Common in Scotch law phraseology, and affected by many English writers'; it might have gone further, and said '"affected" in any English writer'; such things are antiquarian rubbish, Wardour-Street English. Why not (as our imagined intelligent reader asked) — why not before, except, and about? Bread is the staff of life, and words like these, which are common and are not vulgar, which are good enough for the highest and not too good for the lowest, are the staple of literature. The first thing a writer must learn is, that he is not to reject them unless he can show good cause. Before and except, it must be clearly understood, have such a prescriptive right that to use other words instead is not merely not to choose these, it is to reject them. It may be done in poetry, and in the sort of prose that is half poetry: to do it elsewhere is to insult before, to injure ere (which is a delicate flower that will lose its quality if much handled), and to make one's sentence both pretentious and frigid.

It is now perhaps clear that the Saxon oracle is not infallible; it will sometimes be dumb, and sometimes lie. Nevertheless, it is not without its uses as a test. The words to be chosen are those that the probable reader is sure to understand without waste of time and thought; a good proportion of them will in fact be Saxon, but mainly because it happens that most abstract words — which are by our second rule to be avoided— are Romance. The truth is that all five rules would be often found to give the same answer about the same word or set of words. Scores of illustrations might be produced; let one suffice: In the contemplated eventuality (a phrase no worse than what any one can pick for himself out of his paper's leading article for the day) is at once the far-fetched, the abstract, the periphrastic, the long, and the Romance, for if so. It does not very greatly matter by which of the five roads the natural is reached instead of the monstrosity, so long as it is reached. The five are indicated because (1) they differ in directness, and (2) in any given case only one of them may be possible.

(For further instruction see 'The Complete Plain Words' by Sir Ernest Gowers)

« Language IS Understanding » « Community Defined » « Our Decline » « Home »