Why this Book was Written
From The ABC Of Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (1954)

THIS book is a supplement to Plain Words. Like Plain Words, it was written at the invitation of the Treasury to help in improving official English. Plain Words, they said, has given us a start; but that is not enough. We must have something that can be kept on the desk and consulted on points of difficulty as they arise. Plain Words is of little use for that; it has not even an index. What is now wanted is a reference book with entries under headings alphabetically arranged. There are, it is true, several books of that sort, but they are not in quite the right focus for our purpose. There are plenty of grammar-books too, all with indexes. But these do not quite meet the case either. All contain many things that need not be in the sort of book that we have in n mind and omit some things that ought to be there. Would I try my hand at an ABC suitably focused? I said I would, and that is how this book came to be written.

I soon discovered that an ABC lay-out presents two great difficulties to its compiler, and I am not confident of having overcome either. One is that it tends to put everything on the same plane—to give the impression that all the points mentioned are, in the compiler's opinion, of equal importance. Nothing could be further from the truth here. For instance, under the heading NUMBER is some advice about when a singular verb should be used with that word, and when a plural. It is sound advice, and may be useful to those who care about being correct in such things. But I cannot believe it to be of real importance whether anyone writes "a number is" or "a number are". Whichever he does, his readers will find no difficulty in knowing what he means, and to get it " wrong " is no evidence of any defect in his education or intelligence. On another page will be found a heading ABSTRACT NOUNS. Here examples are given to show how addiction to abstract nouns, that commonest and most pernicious vice of present-day writing, is the result of confused thinking and the cause of woolly circumlocution ; and produces a habit of mind (to take the specimen most recently added to my collection) which asks "was this the realisation of an anticipated liability?" when what is meant is "did you expect you would have to do this?" The article on this subject is cardinal, and I should be sorry if anyone thought that I put the one about NUMBER on the same level. That these topics may not appear in proper perspective is the more unfortunate because we do not yet seem to have wholly rid ourselves of the idea, prevalent a generation or two ago, that the unimportant things mattered most, and that a good writer was one who scrupulously observed musty taboos like those that forbid the splitting of the infinitive, the use of whose with an inanimate antecedent, or writing very pleased or different to. All I can do is to disclaim any such purpose ; and I hope that perhaps Plain Words may continue to be read in conjunction with its sequel, and serve to promote what I think to be the true sense of values.

The other difficulty is more serious. The object of this book is to enable a writer to keep himself straight by looking up the entry that will give him guidance whenever he is in doubt on any point of diction or usage. Over a large part of the field that should be plain sailing. He wants, let us say, to know whether to use contact as a verb. He turns to CONTACT, and finds there some advice about it. He is not sure whether a comma is needed in a certain place. He turns to COMMA, knowing that there, if anywhere, he will discover the answer. But what of the writer who needs not a simple and straightforward piece of advice like this, which he knows he wants, but to be saved from falling into some blunder that perhaps he has never heard of? If he knows that what he is about to write is a blunder, he will not write it, and needs no help to avoid it. If he does not know, what will there be to set him questioning? The entry ABSTRACT NOUNS will again serve as an example. There is no reason why anyone addicted to abstract nouns, unconscious of any offence, should ever be prompted to read that article; nor can I think of any other title for it that would be more likely to throw it in his way. An ABC, if used only as a work of reference, will be of no service to such people. And if they are expected to read the book through, why make things harder for them by casting it into the forbidding form of a sort of dictionary?

I have tried to meet this difficulty by prefacing the ABC with a guide to its contents arranged under subjects. This may be of use in steering those who already know what they want guidance about, but its main purpose is to awaken questionings in those who do not, and to show them where any curiosity or misgivings that may have been aroused in them can be put to the test. So I hope that anyone who uses the book will make a point of reading the guide.

As I have said, a new book was thought to be necessary because existing books are not in the right focus for this special purpose. It follows that this book does not profess to be a complete guide to what ought to be known by those who wish to write well. It concentrates on what seem to its compiler to be the weakest points in the use of English today for official and similar purposes, and ignores, or passes lightly over, rules and conventions generally observed. It also avoids as far as possible grammatical jargon, which most of us forget as soon as we leave school ; though it is necessary to assume the reader's familiarity with the commonest grammatical terms, such as the names of the parts of speech, the parts of verbs, and the cases. Some of what is in this book is in Plain Words; most is not. Almost all the examples are new; like those in Plain Words they are drawn in the main from recent official and commercial documents.

The right focus, then, depends on right observation, and as the observation that went to the making of this book was limited to my own and that of one or two others who have been good enough to help me, there can hardly fail to be many shortcomings in it, especially of omission. I, shall welcome from readers any criticisms, suggestions, and examples that may improve future editions. I have had many letters about Plain Words, all of them kind but most of them criticising something that I had said, and some convicting me of error beyond question. I acknowledge with gratitude the interest and profit that I have derived from these letters. If any curious reader should notice that there are passages in this book that are at variance with what was said in Plain Words, he may safely assume the explanation to be that I have been convinced I was wrong.

I have again many helpers to thank. Mr. A. P. Sinker, C.B., lately Director of Training and Education at the Treasury, inspired the book, and kept a guiding hand on its preparation. Miss E. M. Kirk and Miss M. I. P. Norman of his Division have given me invaluable assistance. I have once more been fortunate enough to have the benefit of Mr. Wyn Griffith's wise and frank advice. Mr. L. F. Schooling has spared no trouble to enable me to profit from his experience of training officials in expressing themselves. I had ready co-operation from every government department from whom I asked it, and I owe particular thanks to Miss Oliver of the Board of Trade.

I must also record my gratitude to the authors, publishers, and proprietors of the books, newspapers, and periodicals that I have used and quoted from and especially of the books listed in the bibliography.