"He that will write well in any tongue, must follow this counsel of Aristotle, to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do; and so should every man understand him, and the judgment of wise men allow him". — Roger Ascham.
A BOOK designed as a guide to officials in the use of English runs the risk of giving a false impression. It cannot help being concerned mainly with faults to be corrected, and so may make the picture look blacker than it is. The true justification for such a book is not so much that official English is specially bad as that it is specially important for it to be good. The efficiency of government, central and local, depends to an ever-increasing extent on the ability of a large number of officials to express themselves clearly. At present there is a popular idea that most of them cannot-or will not-do so. The term officialese has been invented for what is supposed to be their ineffective way of trying. I do not know exactly what that word means, and, for once, the Oxford English Dictionary is not illuminating. It defines officialese unhelpfully as "the language characteristic of officials or official documents". The 1933 supplement carries us a step further by giving a recent example from These men thy Friends by E. Thompson (1927):
"'Who are these noble Arabs?' asked Kenriek. 'It's officialese for beastly Buddoos,' explained Edmund Candler".
Even with the illustration we are left in some doubt what are the precise characteristics of officialese. But that it is not ordinarily used as a term of praise is certain.
I should be sorry to be thought to support the popular notion that officials write a language of their own of a uniquely deplorable kind. Undoubtedly they have their peculiar faults of style. So have journalists theirs. It is reasonable to attribute those of officialese in the main to the peculiar difficulties with which official writers have to contend. As we have seen, much of what they write has to be devoted to the almost impossible task of translating the language of the law, which is obscure in order that it may be unambiguous, into terms that are simple and yet free from ambiguity. And our system of government imposes on them the need always of being cautious and often of avoiding a precision of statement that might be politically dangerous. Moreover, officials do not easily shake off the idea that dignity of position demands dignity of diction. But it is certainly wrong to imagine that official writing, as an instrument for conveying thought, is generally inferior to the lamentably low standard now prevalent except among professional writers. It is not only the official who yields to the lure of the pompous or meretricious word, and overworks it; it is not he alone who sometimes fails to think clearly what meaning he wants to convey by what he is about to write, or to revise and prune what he has written so as to make sure that he has conveyed it. From some common faults he is comparatively free. Most officials write grammatically correct English. Their style is untainted by the silly jargon of commercialese, the catchpenny tricks of the worse sort of journalism, the more nebulous nebulosities of politicians, or the recondite abstractions of Greek or Latin origin in which men of science, philosophers and economists too often wrap their thoughts. Sometimes it is very good, but then no one notices it. Occasionally it reaches a level of rare excellence.
The fact is not that officials do uniquely badly but that they are uniquely vulnerable. Making fun of them has always been one of the diversions of the British public. The fun sometimes has a touch of malice in it, but the habit springs from qualities in the British character that no one would like to see atrophied. The field for its exercise and the temptation to indulge in it are constantly growing. De facto executive power, which during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries moved from the King to Ministers, is being diffused lower still by the growth of social legislation. The theory that every act of every official is the act of his Minister is wearing thin. The "fierce light that beats upon a throne and blackens every blot" is no longer focused on the apex, but shines on the whole pyramid. So many people have to read so many official instructions. These offer a bigger target for possible criticism than any other class of writing except journalism, and they are more likely to get it than any other class, because a reader's critical faculty is sharpened by being told — as we all so often have to be nowadays — that he cannot do something be wants to, or must do something he does not want to, or that he can only do something he wants to by going through a lot of tiresome formalities.
So it is natural enough that official writing, with its undeniable tendency to certain idiosyncrasies of style, should have been worked up into a stock joke. The professional humorist, in print or on the stage or on the air, can always be sure of a laugh by quoting or inventing bits of it. It is a way of getting one's own back. It is pleasantly flattering to the critics' sense of superiority. Bagehot once pictured the public of his day as saying to themselves with unction:
"Thank God I am not as that man: I did not send green coffee to the Crimea; I did not send patent cartridge to the common guns and common cartridge to the breach-loaders. I make money; that miserable public functionary only wastes it."
So we may imagine the critic of today saying:
"Thank God I am not as that man; when I write a letter I make my meaning plain; this miserable public functionary only obscures his, if indeed he ever had any".
He may be right about the functionary, but he is probably wrong about himself.
Though the spirit that still moves us to mock our officials may be healthy, the amusement can be overdone. One or two recent critics of so-called officialese have indulged in it to excess, deriding without discrimination, putting in their pillory good as well as bad, sometimes even mistaking the inventions of other scoffers for monstrosities actually committed. That is regrettable. It is a curious fact that attempts to teach "good English" often meet with resistance. Probably the explanation is that an exaggerated importance was for so long given to things that do not greatly matter; the conviction still lingers that instruction in good English means having to learn highbrow rules of no practical usefulness. It will take a long time to put the truth across that "good English" consists less in observance of grammatical pedantries than in a capacity to express oneself simply and neatly. Unfair criticism arouses reasonable resentment, and increases the difficulty of creating an atmosphere receptive of the new ideas. Even the notion that officialese in its derogatory sense is encouraged by authority has not wholly disappeared. The truth is, on the contrary, that great pains are now taken to train staffs to write clear and straightforward English. There may not yet be much to show for it in results, but that is another thing.
It does not seem to me to be true to say that the language itself is in decay. Its grammatical and syntactical usages are carefully preserved, perhaps too carefully. It is constantly being invited to assimilate new words, and seems capable of digesting many of them without any great harm, some indeed with profit. Some of the changes that have taken place in the meaning of words have weakened the language, but others have strengthened it, and on the whole there is no great cause for disquiet here. The language remains as fine and flexible an instrument as it was when used by Shakespeare and Bacon; in some respects it has been enriched. There are some alive today, and some recently dead, whose exact and delicate English would bear comparison with the outstanding writers of any generation. What is wrong is not the instrument itself but the way we use it. That should encourage us to hope that we may do better. When we are tempted to say that we have fallen away from the high standard of our forefathers, we must not forget the vast increase in the part played by the written word in our affairs. With such an increase in quantity it would be surprising if there were not some deterioration in quality. The field in which these faults are most readily noticed — the writings of officials for the guidance of the public — is almost wholly new. We cannot say whether the crop that grows there is better or worse than it was a hundred years ago, for no crop then grew there.
However unfair it may be that official English should have been singled out for derision, the fact has a significance that the official must not forget. The reader is on the look-out for the tricks of style that he has been taught to expect from official writing. Shortcomings are magnified, and the difficulties that every writer has in affecting his reader precisely as he wishes are for the official wantonly increased. All the greater is his duty to try to convert officialese into a term of praise by cultivating unremittingly that clarity of thought and simplicity of expression which have always been preached by those who have studied the art of writing. Thus he may learn, in the word of the 400-year-old advice that heads this chapter, by thinking as wise men do, and speaking as the common people do, to make every man understand him.