Mind your language: Why civil servants should strive for clarity above all else

The civil service has been battling against verbose official-speak for decades. But clarity of language reflects clarity of purpose
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By Chris Holme

14 May 2024

It was the year civil servants started minding their language.

Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers came out in 1948 and both it and later revisions have not been out of print since.

Gowers started at the Inland Revenue in 1904, later served as principal private secretary to chancellor David Lloyd George, and was head of civil defence in London during the Blitz.

In retirement he was asked by Sir Edward Bridges, head of the home civil service, to write a wee book on English usage for civil service training courses.

Bureaucratic “officialese” had long been a bugbear for Gowers, who advocated a new style: simple and direct language, friendly in tone and easy to understand.

He rejected a £500 flat fee from the Stationery Office in favour of royalties from each copy. This turned out to be an astute move, since it sold more than 150,000 copies in the first year.

Gowers had tapped into wider concerns about the state of the English language already identified by George Orwell, who wrote in 1945: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

This excerpt from Politics and the English Language was a hint of what was to come, with his novel 1984 completed in the same year as Plain Words. Orwell listed six rules for better writing, the last of which helpfully gave permission to break the others if absolutely necessary. 

Gowers was also tolerant of the occasional mishap. He explored the different styles required, such as legal language for bill drafting teams and the use of shorthand phrases among specialist groups, but the overriding thrust was for simple English.

There had already been signs of progress. A batch of former journalists became ministers during the war, including the prime minister, Winston Churchill, his private secretary Brendan Bracken and minister for aircraft production Lord Beaverbrook. Tom Johnston, the Scottish secretary, was also a journalist prior to his political career, as was his chief press officer Alastair Dunnett, later a celebrated editor of The Scotsman

Perhaps surprisingly, the trend for less stuffy English can be traced back to the public sector of the 1930s, which seized the opportunities of the then new media of radio and cinema, creating a generation of young British filmmakers with the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office film units.
The Central Office of Information took this further during the war, with documentaries, animations and features showing public policy in an engaging and sometimes entertaining manner. 

Newsprint shortages in wartime also forced changes in print journalism: copy had to be much shorter and crisper.

Gowers had clearly struck a chord, but by 1973 parts of his book were inevitably a bit dated. Another seasoned civil servant, Sir Bruce Fraser, revised it as The Complete Plain Words, keeping much of the original and adding his own sections. 

Fraser had joined the Scottish office in 1933 and later served in the Treasury, health, and education before his final post as comptroller and auditor general.

Former colleagues provided Fraser with examples of awful writing and he offered suggestions to civil servants on how to avoid them:

  • Nothing is less likely to appeal to a young woman than the opinions of old men on the pill.
  • People in the South East keep their teeth longer than people in the North.
  • Prices of different models vary, and you should take the advice of an expert on the make.

He was scathing about pretentious language used by academics and new management speak churned out by business schools.

Like Gowers, Fraser was no fuddy-duddy pedant. He welcomed new words brought in by the computer age: program, software, and hardware (yes, these existed in 1973).

But old habits persisted in the civil service – lazy writing for reports which audiences had to read rather than choosing to read them. Pompous and verbose circumlocution was sufficiently ingrained in the public mind to provide the grist for Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister.

Words mattered to Gowers and Fraser because clarity of expression indicates clarity of thinking. Clear writing is much harder than rehashing tired old phrases. It does, however, reinforce public confidence that officials care about their work and know what they are doing.

So, what’s happened since? Civil servants, following the example of their colleagues eighty years ago, have adapted well to the demands of new media. The GOV.UK website is a beacon of clarity and ease of use. 

In Fraser’s day, “stakeholders” were the angry villagers at the end of a Hammer horror movie confronting Dracula and fellow vampires. “Oversight” then meant a serious error, entirely the opposite of what it means today (keeping a close watch on something). And we all now work in “partnership”, which is convenient in having someone else to blame when policy goes awry. 

“Delivery”, once the exclusive province of midwives and posties, today means avoiding a commitment to actually providing something. The word has since grown legs, stepping into cluttered delivery landscapes, which opens up the prospect of a new civil service post – a delivery landscape declutterer who will probably work alongside a strategic synergist and granular grain of truth operative.

Fashions come and go. “Step change”, once a favourite of ministers, is now thankfully a rarity, although “standing shoulder to shoulder” – a tired cliché in Orwell’s opinion – remains a favourite.

Every new minister comes in with their own writing habits and foibles: Thérèse Coffey arrived at the Department of Health with a pathological aversion to the Oxford comma, but she only survived a few weeks in the post.

Meanwhile, Ernest Gowers’ passion for wordsmithery lasted for decades. He worked on until the end, completing a major revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage shortly before his death in 1966. The mantle was subsequently taken up by his great-granddaughter, the novelist Rebecca Gowers, who published a revision of Plain Words in 2014.

The fight for clear language goes on... 

Chris Holme is a former Reuters Foundation fellow in medical journalism and worked as a communications manager in the Scottish Government until 2011

Read the most recent articles written by Chris Holme - 'The nation was fortunate': The civil servants who helped build the NHS


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