Plain Words

Plain Words

Author: Ernest Gowers


This classic work on written communication teaches invaluable lessons in how to ‘convey to your readers exactly what you intend to convey’ (page 1). The author explains how effective communication requires hard work, saying ‘few…things are more difficult than to find the right word, and many people are too lazy to try’ (page 4). The book guides people to think hard and write clearly, something the author says ‘… a great many people go through life without doing…to any noticeable extent’ (page 45).


I'm thinking of... Davide Restivo on Flikr.
I’m thinking of… Davide Restivo on Flikr.

The book illustrates many requirements of clear writing. An obvious but overlooked condition is the need for writers to know exactly what information they want to transmit. The author says ‘it is wise … not to begin to write, or to dictate, until you are quite certain what you want to say’ (page 4). A more important stipulation is what the author calls the golden rule; this is ‘to pick those words that convey to the reader the meaning of the writer, and to use them and them only’ (page 3). The book stresses that this simple measure enhances all forms of writing.

Computer words wallpaper. Taryn on Flikr.
Computer words wallpaper. Taryn on Flikr.

The author explores the important skills of choosing right words and constructing clear sentences. He offers several excellent tips to guide these processes such as ‘use no more words than are necessary‘ (page 13), and ‘use familiar words rather than the farfetched’ (page 45). He also stresses the value of using specific words, saying ‘use words with precise meanings rather than vague ones’ (page 17). For this reason the book discourages the use of phrases such as ‘in connection with’, ‘in terms of‘, and ‘with reference to’. It also frowns on the use of superfulous adjectives and adverbs; instead the book recommends simple prepositions such as ‘because’, ‘by’, ‘with’, and ‘about’ (page 55).



The author offers many suggestions on constructing clear sentences, summarised in the maxim to ‘be short, be simple, be human‘ (page 22). He says short sentences ‘will help you to think clearly and your correspondent to take your meaning’ (page 13). The book lists different ways to simplify writing such as ‘ never to make a statement negatively if it could be made positively‘ (page 147).


By Anton Croos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Anton CroosOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


The book explores empathic writing when it quotes a civil servant rule book which says ‘try to put ourselves in the position of our correspondent, to imagine his feelings as he writes his letters, and to gauge his reaction when he receives ours’ (page 10). The book urges writers to understand their correspondents’ circumstances, and to accommodate their personalities and emotional states. He says for example that ‘if he (the correspondent) is obscure, spare no trouble to get at his meaning…if he is troubled, be sympathetic. If he is rude, be specially courteous. If he is muddle-headed, be specially lucid. If he is pig-headed, be patient. If he is helpful, be appreciative. If he convicts you of a mistake, acknowledge it freely and even with gratitude. But never let a flavour of the patronising creep in’ (page 12).


Stubborn dog. Daren on Flikr.
Stubborn dog. Daren on Flikr.


This is an old book, but the lessons are relevant today to anyone who communicates in writing. It complements other excellent books on clear writing such The Element of Style and The Golden Book On Writing. The exhortation to think and be clear in all correspondence is invaluable. The author is very detailed, every page worth reading.

Overall assessment

Writing is at the core of healthcare, and written communication is central to patient safety. The book’s recommendations on clear and concise communication are excellent. Clear writing is essential for medical practice, and I recommend this book to all doctors.

Book details

  • Publisher, place, date: Penguin, London, 1978
  • Number of chapters: 17
  • Number of pages: 288
  • ISBN: 978-0-14-05119-4
  • Price: £0.01
  • Star rating: 5 stars


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