IX The Handling of Words
Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

"Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style".Swift

THIS chapter, even more than the others, is inevitably selective and superficial. Its subject is one on which many large volumes have been written. I have confined myself to a few points on which official writers seem to be in special need of guidance, and even these I have had to treat cursorily. 'Those who care enough about writing idiomatically to want something more will find it most readily in Dr. Onions' An Advanced English Syntax, comprehensive but short, the standard text-book of today. Of books dealing in a popular way with the handling of words, as well as the choice of them, Fowler's famous Modern English Usage is unique, and never likely to be superseded. But it was written twenty years ago, and on some few points his opinion is now regarded as questionable. Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, published in 1947, has a similar plan. It was designed, in its author's words, "not to compete with Fowler's Modern English Usage (that would be a fatuous attempt—and impossible) but to supplement it and to complement it."

Arrangement
The proper places for words are those which serve best to make clear the meaning of the sentence comprising them. "A capital rule in the arrangement of sentences", said an eminent grammarian a century or more ago, "is that the words or members most nearly related should be placed in the sentence as near to each other as possible, so as to make their mutual relation clearly appear".

This is an elementary rule; neglect of it leads to ambiguities such as the following:

(From a weekly) "The official statement on the marriage of German prisoners with girls made in the House of Commons..."
"The maintenance of a high morale among work people is recognised to have an important bearing on output both by the Government and by enlightened employers".

No reader will take long to conclude that "made in the House of Commons" refers to "statement", not to "girls", or that "both by the Government and by enlightened employers" refers to "recognised", not to "output". But even a momentary check to the reader is a fault, especially when all that is needed to avoid it is to put "made in the House of Commons" immediately after "statement", and "both by the Government and by enlightened employers" immediately after "recognised". Slips of this sort are mere carelessness, and the only rule for avoiding them is to be careful. I shall have something more to say on the subject in pointing out the danger of supposing that disorderly sentences can be set right by vagrant commas. But one cause of the separation of "words or members most nearly related" is so common that, although I have already touched on it, an examination of some more examples may be useful. That is the separation of the subject from the verb by intervening clauses, usually defining the subject. Here are four more examples.

1. "Workers, however, who feel that the conditions under which they are employed are so hazardous to clothing that they will be unable to meet their essential clothing needs from their ten-coupon supplement and their basic ration, may always make

2. "Officers appointed to permanent commissions who do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraphs and officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who were not already insured at the date of appointment (and who, as explained in para. 3 are therefore not required to be insured during service) may be

3. "Camps, the supply of which will be stimulated and the use of which as an auxiliary will be increased by the Government plans for their provision under the legislation of this year, will also be utilised so far as available".

4. "The cases where a change in the circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises is such that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated, there would be a reduction (or an increase) in the number of hours of Fire-guard duty which the members concerned would he liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside, stand however, in an entirely different position".

In all these examples the reader is kept waiting an unconscionable time for the verb. The simplest way of correcting this will generally be to change the order of the words or to convert relative clauses into conditional, or both. For instance:

1. "Some workers, however, may feel that the conditions under which they are employed are so hazardous to clothing that they will be unable to meet their essential clothing needs from their ten-coupon supplement and their basic ration. If so, they may always make representation

2. "Officers appointed to permanent commissions may be eligible though they do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraph. So may officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who . . . . etc.".

3. "Camps will also be utilised so far as available; the supply of them will be stimulated and their use as an auxiliary will be increased by the Government plans for their provision under the legislation of this year".

4. "The circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises may however so change that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated there would be a reduction, or an increase, in the number of hours of Fireguard duty which the members concerned would be liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside. These cases stand in an entirely different position."

Sometimes the object allows itself to be driven a confusing distance from the verb. Examples of this also will be found in the section on the comma. Or again, the relative may get so far from its antecedent as to make the reader doubtful what the antecedent is.

"Enquiries are received from time to time in connection with requests for the grant of leave of absence to school-children during term time for various reasons, which give rise to questions as to the power to grant such leave."

What is the antecedent of which? Enquiries, requests or reasons? Probably enquiries, but it is a long way off. In this sentence it matters little, but in other sentences similarly constructed it might be important for the antecedent to be unmistakable. The surest way of avoiding ambiguity, when you have started a sentence like this, is to put a full stop after reasons, and begin the next sentence These enquiries, or these requests or these reasons, whichever is meant.

Adverbs sometimes get awkwardly separated from the words they qualify. The following rule for placing them properly is taken from An Advanced English Syntax.

"Adverbs should be so placed in a sentence as to make it impossible to doubt which word or words they are intended to affect. Observe in this connection that qualifying words in English look forwards rather than backwards, and that adverbs should come if possible immediately in front of the word they qualify."

The commonest cause of their going wrong is the fear, real or imaginary, of splitting an infinitive, and we shall come to that later. Apart from this, the adverb most likely to get people into trouble is only. This is a capricious word. Ordinarily its proper place, like that of all other adverbs, is immediately in front of the word it qualifies. But when that word is a personal pronoun it would just as soon, or rather sooner, come immediately after. ("I only am left." "He only could unlock the gates.") Nor is this the end of its waywardness, for there is something about it that constantly tempts writers to remove it from the company of the word it qualifies. This is so common that only-snooping has become as popular a sport with some purists as split-infinitive-snooping was a generation ago. But real ambiguity is rare, and I do not think the only-snoopers should be taken too seriously. My advice is that this is a matter in which you need only concern yourself with the question whether your meaning is unmistakable; and though, in saying this, I have presented a specimen to the collections of the only-snoopers, I think my meaning is as unambiguous as if I had put only in the right place, and said "you need concern yourself only with the question whether your meaning is unmistakable". But you must make sure that it is unmistakable.

"The Board cannot issue coupons for the purchase of rationed material or towels for use in churches. An exception can be made in respect of towels only when the church has been bombed."

What does only qualify? I do not know. The natural, but probably not the intended, meaning is that only when the church has been bombed can an exception be permitted for towels, but rationed material admits of other exceptions. Probably the intended meaning is that exceptions can be made only in respect of towels, and even so only if the church has been bombed. There is too much work for a single only to do it all.

Pronoun-Avoidance
Official prose is made unnecessarily ugly by a shyness of pronouns. Instead of using them, writers are given to repeating the noun, often embroidered by such.

"The examiner's search would in all eases be carried up to the date of the filing of the complete specification, and the examiner (he) need not trouble his head with the subject of disconformity."

"The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are anxious that the Rural Land Utilisation Officer should not in any way hinder the acquisition or earmarking of land for educational purposes, but it is the duty of the Rural Land Utilisation Officer (his duty) to ensure the admission of specially selected Public Assistance eases, provided that no suitable accommodation is available for such cases (them) in a home..."

"He will ascertain which other forces will be affected by the week's deliveries, and send to such forces a copy of the schedule (send them a copy of the schedule).

"Departments should maintain accurate records and make intelligent use of them, and there should be adequate safeguards against the misuse of such records (their misuse)."

"Holders who purchased Bonds of this Issue between the 1st November 1940 and 30th April 1941, inclusive, and wish to have such Bonds (them) repaid on the due date..."

This "such"-disease, endemic in the Civil Service, is due to infection by legal English. There it is not a disease, but an indispensable device for securing economy of words. The draftsman, whose concern, as we have seen, is to make his meaning certain beyond the possibility of error, first defines the sense in which he is using a word, and afterwards when he has to use it again in the same sense, puts such before it, or surrounds it with such . . . as aforesaid, so that he need not repeat the definition. There is no reason for the official to be so punctilious. For instance, opening the Education Act at random, I find:

"61(1) No fees shall be charged in respect of admission to any school maintained by a Local Education Authority, or to any county college, or in respect of the education provided in any such school or college."

No official, unless he was suffering from the such-disease, would put it like that in explaining the law on the subject. He would say: "No fees will be chargeable for admission to any school maintained by a Local Education Authority, or to any county college, or for the education provided in any of them".

I have already given a warning, perhaps unnecessarily, that the pronominal use of the same, which was good English when the Prayer Book was compiled (e.g. "May think those things that be good, and by Thy merciful guiding may perform the same") now only survives in commercialese, and should always be avoided. Same without the definite article (e.g. "Please return same") is even worse.

Split Infinitive
Too many people have already written too much about this. Of all that I have read on the subject, what I like best is the verdict of Jespersen, a grammarian who was as broad-minded as he was erudite.

"This name is bad because we have many infinitives without to, as 'I made him go'. To therefore is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling the good man a split nominative."

Sir Sydney Cockerell has reminded us that Bernard Shaw is on the same side. Sir Sydney wrote to the Listener on the 4th Sept. 1947:

"About forty years ago Bernard Shaw wrote a letter to The Times very much as follows:

"There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of his time to chasing split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it. I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or quickly to go or to quickly go. The important thing is that he should go at once."

The fact is that the rule against the split infinitive is an arbitrary fetish, productive of nothing but conscientious tortuousness and adverbs placed in unnatural and even misleading positions.

(From a letter to The Times:) "A recent visit to Greece has convinced me that the modern Englishman fails completely to recognise that..."

"Some of the stones ... must have been of such a size that they failed completely to melt before they reached the ground."

Does the modern Englishman completely fail to recognise, or does he fail to completely recognise? Did the hailstones completely fail to melt, or did they fail to completely melt? The reader has to guess, and he ought never to have to guess. In these two examples the context shows that the right guess for one will be the wrong guess for the other.

Here is an example of a good literary craftsman goaded into apologetic rebellion against this tyranny:

"As for Spotted Fat, that prudent animal (whom the Go-go now proceeded to condignly beat till ordered to desist) had swum straight ashore without the slightest effort."

Having written this sentence in his book On the Eaves of the World, Reginald Farrer appended the footnote:

"I have never yet, I believe, split an infinitive in my life; here, for the first time in my experience, I fancy the exigencies of rhythm and meaning do really compel me."

Still, there is no doubt that the rule at present holds sway, and, on my principles, the official has no choice but to conform; for his readers will almost certainly attribute departures from it to ignorance of it, and so, being moved to disdain of the writer, will not be affected precisely as he wishes. The official always does conform; splitting infinitives is not one of the faults imputed to him. On the contrary, he sometimes goes out of his way unnecessarily to be on the safe side. One may be pretty sure that the official who wrote: "They appeared completely to have adjusted themselves to it" put the adverb in that uncomfortable position because he thought that it would be splitting an infinitive to write "to have completely adjusted". But it would not; the infinitive can only be split by writing "to completely have adjusted".

Preposition At End
It was, I believe, Dryden who invented the rule that prepositions must not be used to end a sentence with. No one else of importance has ever observed it, and it is now exploded. Whether a preposition should be put at the end of a sentence or before the word it governs is a matter of taste in every case, and sometimes taste will give unequivocal guidance. It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put". The story is well known of the nurse who performed the remarkable feat of getting four prepositions at the end of a sentence by asking her charge: "What did you choose that book to be read to out of for?" She said what she wanted to say perfectly clearly, in words of one syllable, and what more can one ask?

But the championship of the sport of preposition-piling seems now to have been wrested from the English nurse by an American poet:

"I lately lost a preposition;
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, 'Perdition
Up from out of in under there'.
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, 'What should he come
Up from out of in under for?' (24)

Number With Words Of Multitude
Ought we to say "The Government have decided" or "the Government has decided"; "the Committee are meeting",or "the Committee is meeting"? There is no rule; either a singular or plural verb may be used. It is true that some grammarians advise the plural when the emphasis is on the individual members and the singular when it is on the body as a whole. But the official may be content with making sure that one or the other is followed consistently in the same document. There is an air of carelessness in so close a juxtaposition as "The local authority is required in Rule 4 to board out every child or young person committed to their care". It is on the whole safer to use the plural, if only because the singular may lead to difficulty when the pronoun has to be used. They think, of a Committee, sounds more natural than it thinks.

Number Attraction
A verb some way away from its subject is sometimes tempted away from its proper number by a noun closer to it, as in:

"So far as the heating of buildings in permanent government occupation are concerned..."
"The continuing shortage of timber, steel, linoleum, and textiles have hitherto prevented a general recovery even to pre-war standard."

In these sentences are and have are indefensible blunders. But in one or two exceptional instances the force of this attraction has conquered the grammarians. With the phrase more than one the pull of one is so strong that the singular is always used (e.g. "more than one question was asked"), and owing to the pull of the plural in such a sentence as "none of the questions were answered" none has come to be used indifferently with a singular or plural verb.

Case Attraction
A force of the same sort as that referred to in the last section sometimes converts nominatives into accusatives and vice versa. The only type that need be mentioned here is the very common use of whom for who in such a sentence as:

"Hitler did not really move against France until the Nazi machine was in the closest touch with important Frenchmen whom it was known were ready to give effective aid."

Here whom, which is the subject of were, should clearly have been who. This use of the accusative for the nominative, though it can be found in the Bible ("Whom say men that I a") and in Shakespeare ("Arthur whom they say is killed tonig") and is defended by Jespersen (Mod. Eng. Gram. III, p. 197), is to-day generally regarded as a mark of illiteracy and must on no account be allowed to appear in official writing

Qualification Of Absolutes
It is a sign of slovenly thinking to qualify words that have an absolute meaning. No warning is needed against writing very or rather unique. But other words that have been less plastered with danger signals often lead writers astray, as in:

It may safely be said that the design of sanitary fittings has now reached a high degree of Perfection."

An eminent contemporary man of letters, in a book on style, has used the expression more or less wholly; but it would need more than this to induce even the most indulgent descriptive grammarian to admit the propriety of such phrases.

The Unattached Participle
This trap is well known, and generally avoided in official writing. Certain participles have won the right to be used as prepositions or conjunctions. Provided and providing, granted and granting, considering,seeing, having regard to,supposing, regarding, concerning, failing and owing to are common examples. All participles that have not clearly established that right must have the support of nouns or pronouns with which they agree, and you must be quite sure that the meaning you want to convey corresponds with the grammatical meaning.

"Administered at first by the National Gallery, it was not until 1917 that the appointment of a separate board and director enabled a fully independent policy to be pursued."

The writer must have started with the intention of making the Tate Gallery (about which he was writing) the subject of the sentence but changed his mind, and so administered is left unattached.

Other examples:

"Having worked out the syllabus, and commandeered a large building, my appointment was cancelled."
"Not knowing the direction be had taken, our searches were fruitless."

Due To
This will be a suitable place to refer to the common abuse of this expression, because it is analogous to the unattached participle. Due to has not been admitted as a preposition. It is an adjective, and should not be used otherwise. That means that it must always have a noun to agree with. You may say: "Floods due to a breach in the river bank covered a thousand acres of land". But you must not say: "Due to a breach in the river bank a thousand acres of land were flooded". In the first due to agrees properly with floods, which were in fact due to the breach. In the second it can only agree with a thousand acres of land, which were not due to the breach, or to anything else except the Creation. When you feel a temptation to use due to as a preposition, write owing to instead; it will always serve.

But it must lie admitted that the prepositional use is very common and it may have come to stay. I have already quoted Fowler's remark about it: "perhaps idiom will beat the illiterates, perhaps the illiterates will beat idiom; our grandsons will know". Now that the B.B.C. has taken the side of the illiterates ("Less opencast coal was produced last week due to the weather") the illiterates will probably win.

Over Lapping
Common types of this form of carelessness are:

"The subject of Mr. X's talk tonight will be about market-gardening."

(A confusion between "The subject will be market-gardening" and "the talk will be about market-gardening".)

"The reason why progress is slow is because materials are scarce.

(A confusion between "The reason why progress is slow is that materials are scarce" and "progress is slow because materials are scarce".)

"The initiative for calling a special meeting of Congress is up to the President."

(A confusion between "The initiative for calling . . . is with the President" and "it is up to the President to call ...".)

Grammarians also condemn, as a species of overlapping, the extremely common combination of the past conditional with the perfect infinitive.

"I do not think anybody could have expected the machinery to have worked perfectly straight away."

Orthodoxy demands to work instead of to have worked. "The pastness belongs to the finite verb and not to the infinitive," says Onions.

The Fused Participle
This is a name given to a point disputed by grammarians that can be explained thus. It is admittedly correct to write: "The room's being so cold interfered with our work": and "on your surrendering your ration book you will be given a new one". Is it equally correct to write "The room being so cold interfered with our work": "on you surrendering your ration book you will be given a new one"? In other words, can being and surrendering be treated not as gerunds requiring the possessives room's and your, but as participles "fused" with room and you? And, if not, where are you to put the possessive 's if what you want to say is not "the room's being cold" but "all the rooms in this office being so cold", not "on your surrendering" but "on you and all the other members of your family surrendering"? To that question the answer can only be that there is nowhere to put it, and that if the "fused participle" is inadmissible, sentences like these must be recast.

This is not in itself a matter of any great interest or importance, or one that many readers of official English are likely to have strong opinions about. But it is notable as having been the occasion of a battle of the giants, Fowler and Jespersen.(25) Fowler condemned the "fused participle" as a construction "grammatically indefensible" that is "rapidly corrupting modern English style". Jespersen defended it against both these charges. Those best competent to judge seem to have awarded Jespersen a win on points.

What is certain is that sometimes we feel one construction to be the more idiomatic, and sometimes the other, and, in particular, that proper names and personal pronouns seem to demand the gerund. We should all unhesitatingly prefer "on your surrendering" to "on you surrendering", but if we had any preference as between "the room's being so cold" and "the room being so cold" it would probably be for "room".

No one therefore is likely to get into any great trouble if he uses which he likes, trusting to his ear to keep him right. But the difficulty can always be dodged. We can, for instance, write "Our work was interfered with because the room was so cold", and "when you surrender your ration book you will be given a new one".

No difficulty of course arises if the subject of the verb is the room and not the room's being so cold, as in "The room, being so cold, was impossible to work in"— being is obviously a participle—or if the construction is absolute and the verb has a new subject, as in "The room being so cold, we could not work in it".

The Inanimate Whose
Orthodoxy is said to demand the relative genitive of which and not whose when the antecedent is inanimate. This rule, even more than that which forbids the split infinitive, is a cramping one, productive of ugly sentences and a temptation to misplaced commas.

"There are now a large number of direct controls, the purpose of which is to allocate scarce resources of all kinds between the various applicants for their use."

Here the writer, having duly respected the prejudice against the inanimate whose, finds that controls the purpose is an awkward juxtaposition, with its momentary flicker of a suggestion that controls is a verb governing purpose.(26) So he separates them by a comma, although the relative clause is a "defining" one, (see Chapter 10), and the comma therefore misleading. In his effort to avoid one ambiguity he has created another.

(Observe incidentally that the use of between instead of among when the objects are more than two, as they must be here, offends against accepted usage.)

"Sir Alexander Cadogan added that legislatures were not unaccustomed to ratifying decisions the entry into force of which was contingent on circumstances beyond their control."

Here the writer has properly resisted the temptation to lessen the inevitable ugliness of the construction by putting a comma after decisions. How much more smoothly each sentence would run if the writer had felt at liberty to say controls whose purpose and decisions whose entry.

Onions regards it as permissible to use whose in such circumstances in order to avoid the "somewhat awkward collocation of of which with the definite article". I do not see why officials with such a witness to call for the defence against a charge of unorthotloxy should not encourage this use, and follow the lead of the Ministry of Health, who in their last Annual Report wrote:

"The Report contains many examples of hospitals whose development has been hampered by lack of space."

Thus the Service may help to hasten the general acceptance of Fowler's plea:

"Let us in the name of commonsense prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar and present intelligibility and obvious convenience on their side, and lack only starch."

While
It is safest to use this conjunction only in its temporal sense (your letter came while I was away on leave). It is legitimate to use it also as an adversative conjunction without any temporal sense, as equivalent to although (while I do not agree with you, I accept your ruling) ; but once we leave the shelter of the temporal sense we find ourselves on the road that may lead to treating while as a synonym for and (a red rag to the purists), and to such literal absurdities as a recent announcement by the B.B.C. that at the Shakespeare Memorial service at Southwark Cathedral Mr. Leon Quartermaine would recite passages from the plays while Sir Kenneth Barnes would read the lessons.

Former And Latter
Never hesitate to repeat words rather than use former or latter to avoid doing so. The reader always has to look back to see which is which and so you annoy him and waste his time. And there is no excuse at all for using latter merely to serve as a pronoun, as in:

"In these employments we would rest our case for the exclusion of young persons directly on the grounds of the latter's moral welfare." (Their moral welfare.)

Howlers (Or, As Grammarians Would Say, Catachreses)
These are rare, as one would expect, in official English. But I have noticed a few.

Alternate and alternately used for alternative and alternatively

"The alternate accommodation is a camping coach two miles from the hostel."

Alternately means one after the other by turns; alternatively means in a way that offers a choice.

Comprised of for composed of

"The armies with which we fight our wars are mainly comprised of civilians." A body comprises the elements of which it is composed.

Desiderate for desire

"One influential deputation desiderated state management [of licensed premises in New Towns]."

Desiderate means more than desire. It means to feel the want of, to miss, to think long for, as the Irish say. Mrs. Gummidge desiderated the old 'un. But the influential deputation cannot have been feeling like that about something that existed only in their hopes

i.e for e.g.
This is elementary, but the mistake sometimes appeal's in surprising places. i.e. stands for idest (that is) and introduces a definition; e.g. stands for exempli gratia (for the sake of example) and introduces an illustration. Thus: "The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, i.e. Mr. Bevin": "A Principal Secretary of State, e.g. Mr. Bevin".

Infer for imply

"Great efforts were made to write down the story, and to infer that the support was normal . . . I felt most bitter about this attitude for . . . it inferred great ignorance and stupidity on the part of the enemy."

A writer or speaker implies what his reader or hearer infers.

Mitigate against for militate against
I should have put this malapropism down as a mere slip—the sort of thing that might happen to any of us—if I had not found more than one instance of it, one of them in a document written by an exceptionally intelligent and highly educated young official. So perhaps it is worth mentioning.

Prescriptive right for indefeasible right
Prescriptive right is a technical term of the law. It means a right founded on unchallenged custom. It has no greater sanctity than any other sort of right; on the contrary, it is likely to be more questionable than most.

Transpire for happen

"Outside, the crowd of newspaper reporters struggled to obtain news of what had transpired."

Transpire, in its figurative sense does not mean to occur; it means to become known.

Rhythm And Euphony
The official need not ordinarily trouble his head about these. If he chooses the right words and uses them in the right way, what he writes will run smoothly without any conscious effort on his part. There are only two things that need watching. One is to steer a middle course between tiresome repetition of the same word and that ostentatious avoidance of it that is known as "elegant variation". The other is to beware of jingles so obtrusive as to force themselves on the reader's attention, such as:

"The controversy as to which agency should perform the actual contractual work of erection of houses."
« NEXT » « Plain Words » « Library » « Our Decline »