In which The Author finds a piece of comedy gold
Yesterday, while browsing in a charity shop in Aberdare, I came across a 1973 Pelican Books edition of The Complete Plain Words.
Originally written by Sir Ernest Gowers for internal use within the Civil Service, the book quickly entered widely circulation. The aim of the author was to encourage people to write clearly, accurately and concisely; ‘to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade’.
The 1973 edition, revised by Sir Bruce Fraser, retains most of the bizarre examples of Government-speak which Gowers was trying to eliminate. I read the first six chapters last night, and found myself wondering how many of today’s barely-literate school-leavers would cope when confronted with a sentence like this:
I regret however that the Survey Officer who is responsible for the preliminary investigation as the technical possibility of installing a telephone at the address quoted by any applicant has reported that owing to a shortage of a spare pair of wires to the underground cable (a pair of wires leading from the point near your house right back to the local exchange and thus a pair of wires essential for the provision of telephone service for you) is lacking and that therefore it is a technical impossibility to install a telephone for you at… (Gowers, 1973: 32).
Gowers then translates this into normal English:
I am sorry to tell you that we have found that there is no spare pair of wires on the cable that would have to be used to connect your house with the exchange. I fear therefore that it is impossible to install a telephone for you (Gowers, 1973: 32).
(The answer to my question is obvious, of course – they’d just use a mobile phone.)
Elsewhere, the book quotes an example which made me laugh out loud. Here it is, in full:
Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:
The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.
I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.
The man cow is call an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not each much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass (Gowers, 1973: 69).
Gowers, E. (1973) The Complete Plain Words (2nd rev. edn.) Harmondworth: Penguin.