The Complete Plain Words

“The writer who wants to present his ideas clearly and with force by eschewing jargon and sticking to plain words should first read Gowers.”
— Jacques Barzun and Henry Fiction. Graff, The Modern Researcher

For those who must write to get their work done– businessmen and women, students, teachers and librarians; civil servants who have to compose regulations, letters on government business, even signs for public buildings, airports and highways; anyone, in fact, who must be able to put sentences together to make clear a set of facts, requirements or proposals to these busy people, The Complete Plain Words is a necessary companion. It is a proven, trustworthy guide to achieving an accessible style, to say what needs to be said clearly, succinctly, and correctly in whatever they must write day in and day out. When such guides work well, and Gowers is one that works (and reads) very well, they acquire a force and authority that keep the language clear, flexible and responsive to the constant pressure of the workaday world. The core of the book-nine chapters that cover the issues in the “choice” and “handling” of words will energize anyone with a writing job to do. The celebrated eighty page alphabetical glossary — “A checklist: words and phrases to be used with care” — will save many a writer from committing embarrassing blunders by writing something unintended, misleading or downright foolish.

In 1948 Gowers, a senior British civil servant, was asked by the Treasury to write a book that would improve the written work of government workers in every department. The idea was to combat “officialese,” that bloated argot of officials that buries meaning more that uncovers it. By 1951 Gowers had two short books, here combined in one, and revised in 1986 by Sidney Greenbaum, Director of the Survey of English Usage and Quain Professor of English at University College, London, and Janet Whitcut, former Senior Research Editor of the Longman Dictionary and Reference Book Unit. The introduction is by Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar.

While now best remembered for his style guides, Sir Ernest Gowers spent most of his life as a civil servant rather than as an author. He has been called “one of the greatest public servants of his day” for his performance in many prestigious appointments. His book Plain Words was in fact originally intended as a text on bureaucratic English for civil service training courses, though it achieved much wider fame. After establishing himself as an author, Gowers bought a house and small farm in Sussex, where he wrote and gardened until his death in 1966.