Classic manual on plain language: Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers

Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gower. Cover, 1954

The Complete Plain Words is the UK equivalent of The Elements of Style. It is the biggest-ever bestseller from Her Majesty's Stationery Office, and has never been out of print since 1954.

The first edition in 1948 was a radical call to clarity from a top civil servant. Anything written by Sir Ernest Gowers, formerly Private Secretary to Lloyd George, had the ring of authority. 

During the Blitz, he was in charge of London's civil defence. One evening in 1943 Gowers entertained exhausted civil defenders by mocking the pompous tone and ridiculous language used in government circulars. He called for a radical change: 

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.

After reading this lively, liberal book, public servants began to write "Thank you for your letter," rather than "Your communication of the 12th Inst. is acknowledged…" 

Strengths and limitations of Plain Words

This year's revision by Rebecca Gowers highlights the strengths and limitations of this delightful classic.

Sir Ernest Gowers' own style shows the elegance that plain language can achieve. It is crystal clear, direct and entertaining.

But don't imagine The Complete Plain Words will work as a modern business writing manual. Most of the book, as its title implies, deals with word choice, with one chapter each on sentence structure and punctuation. Words are crucial, but they're not the whole story! 

Even Gowers' advice about specific words and punctuation is of dubious value to us today because words and punctuation all change over time, as he himself repeatedly warns us. Rebecca Gowers has updated many such details — but long-term, this goal is a lost cause.

Take-away message from Plain Words

Gowers' general approach to writing is practical, perceptive, timeless, and inspiring. He is never pedantic. His wisdom shines out again and again, especially in the introductory chapters. 

His core message to public servants is as fresh and true and necessary today as it was in 1946.

Be short. Be simple. Be human. 

 

Photo of book cover: public domain
Kindle edition of Revised Complete Plain Words


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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