ABC of Plain Words Revisited

Plain Words cover pic 001When some BBC journalists don’t know the difference between reticent and reluctant, and use the word enormity to mean an enormous event, popular grammarians, such as Liz Truss or Ernest Gowers, who was her equivalent in the 1950s, are needed more than ever. That’s if these pisspoor journalists can be bothered to read their books.

Sir Ernest Gowers was a senior civil servant whose best-selling popular grammar Plain Words (1948), was devised to help his fellow civil servants write clear and correct English. In 1951, admitting that its format could be improved, Gowers brought out ABC of Plain Words.Nearly 70 years on this guide can still be used alongside other more recent grammars, such as Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Most of the advice proferred by Gowers still applies, but some might raise a few eyebrows among the journalists of today. Here are a few words and their definitions that might provoke discussion today.

Deadline.This is a word known to all hacks, but  Gowers chooses to define deadline conventionally as ‘ a line drawn round a military prison beyond which a prisoner may be shot down’. I don’t know which dictionary Mr Gowers was using, but the Chambers dictionary we use here at Jot HQ gives two definitions besides this one—1) ‘ the time that newspapers, books etc going to press’ 2) ‘a fixed time or date terminating something’. Gowers doesn’t even mention what ninety percent of people nowadays (and probably in 1951 too) would recognise as the most common definition of deadline.

Decimate.Gowers is right about the word decimate, however. He defines it as meaning to reduce by one tenth, not to one tenth. No writer today should get away with saying that troops were decimated, mainly because no-one would possibly know that soldiers in a battle could be reduced by exactly one tenth !

Dilemma.This is another word of precise meaning. It does not mean that someone has a number of difficult courses of action. He or she has exactly two.

Data.To use this plural as a singular is one of commonest errors in our hi-tech age.

How often do we hear that ‘ no firm data is available ‘ ? If we want a singular we should use the phrase ‘one of the data ‘, not datum, which means something quite different, according to Gowers. He claims that datum point (a point assumed or used as a basis of reckoning ) and datum line (a horizontal line from which heights and depths of points are reckoned ) are the correct uses of datum , but this particular  Jotter is unfamiliar with both these terms. 



Adumbrate. Gowers says that this verb is ‘too much used ‘. Perhaps it was in 1951, but not today. We at Jot 101 see it in print about three times a year, if that. Apparently it means to sketch or outline. Ask some twenty-something graduates today how often they use it or have seen it used. Watch the blank faces.

New Verbs.We have our own barely tolerated new verbs ( ‘to medal ‘, for instance)  to roll our eyes at. As Gowers explains, most are formed from nouns, and in 1951 the following were regarded by most people as ‘ new ‘: to audition, to contact, to donate, to enthuse, to feature, to finalise, to glimpse, to hospitalise, to message, to position, to publicise, to reposition, to sense, and to site.

According to Gowers, however, ‘ several of them are words of respectable antiquity ….Only five of them are not included in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary— published in 1933, audition, finalise, hospitalise, publicise and reposition.’ The dictionary describes contact as ‘ rare, technical’, donate to be ‘ chiefly U.S.’ and enthuse to be ‘ U.S. slang ‘. It’s interesting that today the verbs contact and donate have been totally assimilated into British English, whereas ‘to enthuse’ has not. In fact, this is a word that has always been derided in the UK. Also intolerable, according to Gowers, are ‘ to gift ‘, and ‘ to author’. Quite.

Like.Disappointingly, Gowers has nothing to say concerning the expletive ‘ like’, which today crops up in conversations between groups of teenage girls (mainly) when discussing, well just about anything. Perhaps only a sociolinguist could explain exactly why the word ‘like‘seems to fit the bill when a filler is required during a dialogue between a pair of particularly inarticulate adolescents. Perhaps the word was not used in this way in the fifties. When Gowers discusses the word ‘like’ it is in connection with its misuse, as in the clunky Americanism ‘ It looks like he was going to succeed ‘ , which he correctly rephrases as ‘ it looks as if he were going to succeed ‘.Gowers also hates ‘Nothing succeeds like success ‘, which most people today would gladly accept. [R.M.Healey]


3 thoughts on “ABC of Plain Words Revisited

  1. Joe S. Walker

    In the early 21st century “to author” acquired a new meaning, albeit a narrow technical one: to create the user interface and some other details (i.e. bit rate) of a digital disc. To author a DVD or Blu-Ray means setting the running order of its contents, designing the menus, inserting chapter points etc. But it’s already somewhat dated…

  2. R.M.Healey

    That’s something I didn’t know. I wonder how that particular use of ‘ author’ came about. Any idea ?
    Incidentally, don’t you hate the phrase ‘ published author ‘ or worse, ‘published poet’ ? It suggests to me that the thousands of solipsists writing poems for their own pleasure in their bedsits are green with envy when one of their number actually gets a poem accepted in a little magazine and becomes a ‘ published poet’. Is this an Americanism ? I don’t know


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