5.4 Choosing The Concrete Word
Chapter V 'Choice Of Words' from Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"How popular and how influential is the practice [of personifying abstract words] may be shown by such a list of words as the following:—Virtue, Liberty, Democracy, Peace, Germany, Religion, Glory—all invaluable words, indispensable even, but able to confuse the clearest issues unless controlled." OGDEN and RICHARDS

THE reason for preferring the concrete to the abstract is clear. Your purpose must be to make your meaning plain. Now if, as we have seen, even such concrete words as ship, gold and money have a penumbra of uncertainty round them, an incomparably larger one surrounds all abstract words. If you use an abstract word when you might use a concrete one you are handicapping yourself in your task, difficult enough in any case, of making yourself understood. (20)

The Abstract Appendage
I take this expression from the following letter that appeared recently in The Times from Mr. John Buxton:

"SIR, —How long are we to suffer from 'weather conditions'? There was a time when the Englishman's favourite topic of conversation was the weather . . . . Now it is no longer recognised as a substantial and elemental thing, but is reduced, by the addition of this abstract appendage, to the status of a symptom or an excuse, and no one knows what to do about it. Prime Minister, back bencher, and Civil Servant all irritate us with the phrase in print; it is left to the B.B.C. to go even further and, omitting the word 'weather', to refer to 'cold, wintry, snowy (etc) conditions'.

This is the weather the shepherd shuns
And so do I,

wrote Thomas Hardy, not 'The present weather conditions are causing considerable inconvenience to the sheep-farmer'. We cannot shun (or like) 'weather conditions', and the sooner the sloppy phrase is destroyed the sooner our rulers will realize its powers for good or ill".

Is not this over-critical? What exactly is the writer's objection to weather conditions? It cannot be the objection of a grammarian to using the word weather adjectivally; it is a common and useful English idiom to make nouns serve this purpose, and few words can claim a better right to be so employed than that which has given us weather forecast, weather prophet, weather eye, weather quarter and weather tiles. The objection must then be to the use of two words where one would do, a sound objection if it can be sustained. But can it here? Weather conditions imports a larger idea than weather does, at least in time of snow and frost. It embraces the conditions created by yesterday's weather and the likelihood of to-morrow's weather changing them. But the attack, even if badly aimed, was directed against a real fault in official English. If the writer had waited until the next day and attacked, as he might have done, the announcement that blizzard conditions had returned to the Midlands, he could not have been met with any such plea. It was not blizzard conditions that had returned; it was a blizzard. The Meteorological Department are too fond of such expressions as "Cooler conditions will develop" when they mean that it will become cooler.

To avoid terse and blunt statements by wrapping what has to be said round vague abstract words like conditions, position and situation can only result in clouding your meaning. A grave announcement was made early in 1947 which began: "The coal-stocks position is extremely serious". (A common variant of this turn of phrase is the even uglier one the position in regard to.) But why turn into an abstraction anything so concrete as coal? The blunt fact that had to be stated was that coal-stocks were dangerously low. On a historic occasion it fell to a master of words to make an even graver announcement. Mr. Winston Churchill did not begin his broadcast on the 17th June, 1940: "The position in regard to France is extremely serious . He began: "The news from France is very bad". He did not end it: "We have absolute confidence that eventually the situation will be restored". He ended: "We are sure that in the end all will come right". All these vague abstract words-condition, position, situation-should be regarded as danger-signals, and the writer who finds himself using one should think whether he cannot say what he has to say more directly.

I have before me a circular that opens, after announcing its subject in a headline: "It may be useful for Inspectors to be informed about the present situation on this matter". I am not here concerned with this sentence's being wholly "padding" or with the use of on instead of of as the preposition following situation. I quote it because it is an illustration of the attitude of mind that prefers the vague way of putting things to the definite. The official who wants to be sure of making his meaning plain should try so to steep himself in the opposite doctrine that, when he sees a sentence like this, he will, as a matter of course, alter the last nine words to (say): "know how this matter now stands".

Here are some other examples of wrapping meaning in abstractions:

"Unless these wagons can be moved the position will soon be reached where there will be no more wagons to be filled".
"Should the position arise when a hostel contains a preponderance of public assistance cases...

(If we clear away the position miasma that has enveloped these sentences, the first becomes quite pleasant English and the second not too bad.

"Unless these wagons can be moved there will soon be no more wagons to be filled..."
"If a hostel gets a preponderance of (too many) public assistance cases..."
"The Southern Railway admits with much regret the position which has arisen this summer in connection with Continental travel generally".

(This is not so easy, but the writer cannot be acquitted of shirking the duty of precise statement. What the Railway admitted with regret was not any "position" but the inconvenience caused to would-be Continental travellers.)

"The fats position will then be relieved". (More fats will then be available.)
"Investigation will usually reveal that the girls' misbehaviour is the result of interaction between temperament and environment; but always at the root is some defect of character structure".
"Such syndromes ... result in . . . a psychological imbalance verging on moral delinquency".

These last two are written in the jargon of psychology, a science exceptionally addicted to jargon. To those who are versed in it these bundles of abstractions may convey a precise meaning. But these extracts are from documents intended for the ordinary reader, and that will certainly not be true of him. If, for instance, character structure means something different from character, the difference ought to be explained, for no ordinary reader will know it.

The Headline Phrase
This comes from abusing the idiom referred to in the last section-piling substantive on substantive in monstrous clumps. Nursey school is a legitimate use of the idiom, but nursery school provision is not at present regarded as a proper way of saying the provision of nursery schools. Electricity crisis restrictions and world supply situation may be all right as newspaper headlines but will not do in English prose. This unpleasant practice is spreading fast and is corrupting the English language.

"An extra million tons of steel would buy our whole sugar import requirements".

(all the sugar we need to import.)

Lord Dunsany trounces it:

"It is not only in headlines that these misused nouns appear; they sink down from there into the articles, and spread and contaminate books. I think I could tell you within ten years when any book of this century was written merely by noting the progress of the decay of the language that its pages exhibited; or, as it might be put if written in this decade, 'the language decay progress', or even 'the page language decay progress'." (21)

Abstract Roundabouts
A common trick of using abstract words to say in a complicated away something that might be said simply and directly may be illustrated by the following examples.

"Food consumption has been dominated by the world supply situation". (People have had to eat what they could get.)
"There has been considerable advocacy of nursery schools". (Many people have advocated nursery schools.)
"There has been persistent instability in numbers of staff". (Staff has constantly varied in numbers.)
"The cessation of house-building operated over a period of five years". (No houses were built for five years.) Note incidentally the infelicity of "a cessation operated". Operate is just what cessations cannot do.
"A recurrence of vermin could be set up at once". (Vermin could recur at once.)

The following is not official writing, but as it appeared in a newspaper that never shrinks from showing up the faults of official writing, it deserves a place:

"Initiation of a temporary organisation to determine European economic requirements in relation to proposals by Mr. Marshall, American Secretary of State, was announced in the House of Commons this evening".

This way of expressing oneself seems to be tainting official speech as well as writing. "We want you to deny indirect reception", said the goods clerk of my local railway station, telephoning to me about a missing case. "What does that mean?" I asked. "Why", he said, "we want to make sure that the case has not reached you through some other station".

Abstract Adjectival Phrases
By this I mean using a phrase consisting of an abstract noun (e.g. character, nature, description, disposition), with an adjective, where a simple adjective would do as well. This too offends against the rule that you should say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible in order that you may be readily understood.


"These claims are of a very far-reaching character". (These claims are very far-reaching.)
"The weather will be of a showery character". (It will be showery.)
"The wages will be low owing to the unremunerative nature of the work". The translation of this one will present no difficulty to a student of Mr. Micawber, who once said of the occupation of selling corn on commission: "It is not an avocation of a remunerative description -in other words, it does not pay".

Proposition is another abstract word used in the same way.

"Decentralisation on a regional basis is now a generally practical proposition". (Is now generally feasible.)
"Accommodation in a separate building is not usually a practical proposition". (Is not usually feasible.)
"The high cost of land in clearance areas makes it a completely uneconomic proposition to build cottages in those areas".
(Makes it completely uneconomic to build cottages there.)

Proposition in the sense of plan or project has as yet hardly emerged from the slang stage.

Vagueness Caused By Safety-First Mentality
Here we have a real difficulty. The Civil Servant is cautious; he is bound to be. He serves the politician, and the politician is cautious; he is bound to be.

The politician has long known the dangers of precision of statement, especially at election time.

"'And now for our cry', said Mr. Taper.
'It is not a Cabinet for a good cry', said Tadpole; 'but then, on the other hand, it is a Cabinet that will sow dissension in the opposite ranks, and prevent them having a good cry'.
'Ancient institutions and modern improvements, I suppose, Mr. Tadpole'.
'Ameliorations is the better word; ameliorations. Nobody knows exactly what it means'."(22)

That was written a hundred years ago. But it does not seem to be out-of-date, as Mr. Stuart Chase testifies:

"A Senator, distinguished, powerful, an astute leader with surpassing skill in political management, told me that Americanism was to be this year's campaign issue. When I asked him what Americanism meant, he said he did not know, but that it was a damned good word with which to carry an election".(23)

When the official does not know his Minister's mind, or his Minister does not know his own mind, or the Minister thinks it wiser not to speak his mind, the official must sometimes cover his utterance with a mist of vagueness. Civil Service methods are often contrasted unfavourably with those of business. But to do this is to forget that no Board of Directors of a business concern have to meet a committee of their shareholders every afternoon, to submit themselves daily to an hour's questioning on their conduct of the business, to get the consent of that committee by a laborious process to every important step they take, or to conduct their affairs with the constant knowledge that there is a shadow hoard eager for the shareholders' authority to take their place. The systems are quite different and are bound to produce different methods. Ministers are under daily attack, and their reputations are largely in the hands of their staffs. Only if he has full and explicit authority from his Minister can a Civil Servant show in an important matter that promptness and boldness which are said to be the attributes of men of business.

"The words which he writes will go on record, possibly for all time, certainly for a great many years. They may have to be published, and may have a wide circulation. They may even mean something in international relationships. So, even though mathematical accuracy may in the nature of things be unattainable, identifiable inaccuracy must at least be avoided. The hackneyed official phrase, the wide circumlocution, the vague promise, the implied qualification are comfortingly to hand. Only those who have been exposed to the temptation to use them know how hard it is to resist. But with all the sympathy that such understanding may mean, it is still possible to hold that something might be done to purge official style and caution, necessary and desirable in themselves, of their worst extravagances".

This is a quotation from a leading article in The Times. It arose out of a correspondent's ridicule of this extract from a letter written by a Government department to its Advisory Council:

"In transmitting this matter to the Council the Minister feels that it may be of assistance to them to learn that, as at present advised, he is inclined to the view that, in existing circumstances, there is, prima facie, a case for...

It is as easy to slip into this sort of thing without noticing it as to see the absurdity of it when pointed out. One may surmise that the writer felt himself to be in a dilemma: he wanted the Advisory Council to advise the Minister in a certain way, but did not want them to think that the Minister had made up his mind before getting their advice. But he might have done this without piling qualification on qualification and reservation on reservation; all that he needed to say was that the Minister thought so-and-so but wanted to know what the Advisory Committee thought before taking a final decision.

This quotation illustrates another trap into which official writing is led when it has to leave itself a bolt-hole, as it so often has. Cautionary cliches are used automatically without thought of what they mean. There are two of them here: inclined to think and as at present advised. Being inclined to think, in the sense of inclining to an opinion not yet crystallised, is a reasonable enough expression, just as one may say colloquially my mind is moving that way. But excessive use of the phrase may provoke the captious critic to say that if being inclined to think is really something different from thinking, then the less said about it the better until it has ripened into something that can he properly called thought. As of present advised should be used only where an opinion has been formed on expert (e.g. legal) advice, never, as it is too often, as the equivalent of saying: "This is what the Minister thinks in the present state of his mind but, as he is human, the state of his mind may change". That may be taken for granted. We can hardly suppose that the writer of the following sentence really needed time to ponder whether his opinion might not be mistaken:

"We are inclined to think that people are more irritated by noise that they feel to be unnecessary than by noise that they cause themselves".

There is often a real need for caution, and it is a temptation to hedging and obscurity. But it is no excuse for them. A frank admission that an answer cannot be given is better than an answer that looks as if it meant something but really means nothing. Such a reply exasperates the reader and brings the Service into discredit.

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