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The Complete Plain Words [Paperback]

Sir Ernest Gowers , Sidney Greenbaum , Janet Whitcut
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

24 Sep 1987

The Complete Plain Words is the essential guide for anyone who needs to express themselves clearly, fluently and accurately in writing.

Whether you are working on paper or on a computer, this invaluable reference work will lead you through the intricacies, problems and pleasures of the English language with wit, common sense and authority.

  • Deals with the dangers of jargon, cliché and superfluous words
  • Covers strategies for choosing the right word in any situation
  • Lays out the ground rules of grammar and punctuation and shows how to avoid the pitfalls
  • Discusses the influence of science and technology, and other cultures
  • Gives suggestions for drafting letters
  • Provides a list of words to use with care

Sir Ernest Gowers (1880-1966) advised numerous commissions and committees on a wide variety of subjects from work conditions to the preservation of historic houses.

Sidney Greenbaum (1929-1996) was Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of London, a Director of the Survey of English Usage and the author of many books on grammar and linguistics including A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985).

Janet Whitcut has worked on a number of prestigious dictionaries, including the Longman Dictionary of the English Language (1984) and is now a freelance writer with a special interest in language and lexicography.

Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 3rd Rev Ed edition (24 Sep 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140511997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140511994
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 12.5 x 19.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 22,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

From the Publisher

A sample extract:

(iv) Shall and will.

English text-books used to begin by stating the rule that to express the `plain' future shall is used in the first person and will in the second and third:

I shall go

You will go

He will go

and that if it is a matter not of plain future but of volition, permission or obligation it is the other way round:

I will go (I am determined to go, or I intend to go)

You shall go (You must go, or you are permitted to go)

He shall go (He must go, or he is permitted to go)

But the idiom of the Celts is different. They have never recognised `I shall go'. For them `I will go' is the plain future. The story is a very old one of the drowning Scot who was misunderstood by English onlookers and left to his fate because he cried, `I will drown and nobody shall save me'.

American practice follows the Celtic, and in this matter, as in so many others, the English have taken to imitating the American. If we go by practice rather than precept, we can no longer say dogmatically that `I will go' for the plain future is wrong, or smugly with Dean Alford:

"I never knew an Englishman who misplaced shall and will; I hardly ever have known an Irishman or Scotsman who did not misplace them sometimes."

About the Author

Sir Ernest Gowers was born in 1880 and served in a number of illustrious occupations. He advised numerous commissions and committees on a wide variety of subjects from work conditions to the preservation of historic houses. Sidney Greenbaum was a Director of the Survey of English Usage and was the author of many books on grammar and linguistics. Janet Whitcut has worked on a number of prestgious dictionaries and is now a freelance writer with a special interest in langauge.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
83 of 85 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is a classic book. The first sentence of the Prologue says "the main purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade". I think that this book should be required reading for all officials, bureaucrats, managers and other professional people who have to write in English as part of their work.
I particularly like the many examples throughout the book of poor writing followed by the improved versions suggested by the author. The meaning of the improved versions is crystal clear in comparison with the original versions! And the improved versions are much easier to read.
There is a checklist of words and phrases to be used with care. It occupies 70 pages of the book and contains a few hundred words and phrases. Many of the words listed have their own proper function, but they are often used by unwary or careless writers in place of a simpler or more apt word. It is well worth reading through the author's comments and recommendations for each entry.
This is a book that I have read and re-read, and I now try to practice what Gowers preaches.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic little book 19 Jun 2006
I first read this book cover-to-cover, like a novel. It is interesting, easy to read and entertaining. It also covers a LOT of ground without being complicated or long-winded.

I bought this book in the late 90s and I still refer to it regularly. It's a fantastic little reference book. It explains things very clearly, and the examples it uses are very helpful indeed.

Its index is great; you can find what you're looking for very quickly.

It's refreshing to read a book about English usage which reflects our times and stresses the importance of clarity and elegance over blind adherence to Latin-based rules (e.g. it takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to the splitting of infinitives and to sentences ending with prepositions), but which at the same time doesn't do any "dumbing down" - everything it recommends is firmly rooted in good grammar and educated, clear use of the language.

This book was first published 52 years ago, but it has been updated to keep it current. In my opinion it is the best book you can buy if you want a clear, concise, sensible guide to writing well.

Oh - and the section on verbo-pomposity is a hoot!
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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable lessons entertainingly delivered 5 May 2003
By Steve Burrow VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The premise of this book is that writing is a tool that should enable communication and minimize misunderstandings, not a tool with which to show-off learning. This premise shines out in every chapter as the author deals with: choosing the correct word, avoiding superfluous words, arranging words well, and punctuating clearly.
This is not a strict grammar with definitive statements on the split infinitive or the use of hyphens, it is a council of commonsense, filled with examples of poor English (often very funny ones), and suggestions for how they should be improved.. The result is a fantastic and valuable guide to how to write better.
I learnt a lot from this book and enjoyed reading it cover to cover. It also has an excellent index making it a useful reference work. Now all I have to do is learn how to put these great lessons into practise.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Updating an old friend 8 April 2010
I have known of The Complete Plain Words since the mid 1950's and have my 1973 copy on my desk at all times. I bought this latest copy for my granddaughter, just ahout to go up to university. I find it an invaluable aid when writing reports or even just letters: it sorts out those tricky sentences which do not seem quite right and mostly gives the answer to those bits of grammar which one is not quite certain about. Everyone should have one!
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A useful book, but for a specialised readership 30 May 2008
First of all: if you are someone who hasn't read a lot of books about the English language, but you have to do a fair amount of writing in your daily life and you feel that you need help with grammar and punctuation, this book is probably not for you.

Gowers' original book was written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, mainly for use by civil servants who were already highly educated but who needed reminding that they were supposed to be servants of the public, not masters. Gowers' advice is mostly about cleaning up bad and pretentious English, not about basic points of style and usage for people who just don't know how to put a sentence together. If you want a useful book which will tell you things like where to put the full stop in a sentence that ends with a quote, then you need a good style guide. The best one for my money is the Oxford University Press 'New Hart's Rules', an excellent handbook of guidelines on basic usage, clarity and good plain style. Alternatively, you could get Fowler's 'Modern English Usage' but the current edition of it (edited by Robert Burchfield) is somewhat controversial, and previous editions, though fascinating, are a bit out of date. 'New Hart's Rules' covers the same ground but is shorter and more handy for everyday use.

'The Complete Plain Words' is a different sort of book from any of the above, and is really intended for people who already think they know how to write. It's extremely good at clearing up common confusions in the minds of educated people, such as the distinctions between 'abrogate' and 'arrogate', or 'comprise' and 'compose' (or, for that matter, the specific difference between 'comprise' and 'include'.) If this is not the kind of thing you are looking for, then you probably need 'New Hart's Rules' or Fowler.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Useful writing guide
Was instructed to read this by a tutor and it does help to make you think about clarity of writing. Useful for academics and anyone else wanting to make their prose sharp. Read more
Published 12 days ago by Katie
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Book appears to be second hand, crumpled and old....
Published 16 days ago by lushby
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic but nowadays not without competition
I recently got this book because my previous copy had fallen apart with use (only the second book of mine to which this has happened - see my other reviews). Read more
Published 6 months ago by Gareth Greenwood
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear and without bla bla...
Not only is the author very well educated but also has practical experience in written english communication in complex and highly critical environments.
Published 7 months ago by Paul Billington
5.0 out of 5 stars Education should never stop
Apparently over 40% of our actions are a result of habit. Scary when you think about speech. You start noticing how to improve when you start reading. highly recommended
Published 8 months ago by Stevie B
5.0 out of 5 stars A book worth having to hand when writing concisely.
Easy reading of the subject. Answers all the questions relating to written English.
The condition of the book was as stated. Prompt delivery. I highly recommend the supplier.
Published 9 months ago by Thomas Layden
4.0 out of 5 stars The complete Plain Words By Sir Ernest Gowers
This is a must read book for everyone. Keeps the faffing out of writing. This should be on everyone's bookshelf and be well used. A really good buy.
Published 9 months ago by Minnie Adams
4.0 out of 5 stars totally different cover
I was surprised to see that the book I’ve received had a totally different cover but obviously that’s not the main thing. The condition of book was very good, quick delivery
Published 10 months ago by Martyna Rybczynska
5.0 out of 5 stars Does What It Says on the Tin
Classic text. I didn't purchase the most up-to-date text but what I have is still relevant. The book is wise and witty and knows its audience, making clear allowance for those who,... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Tony Willis
4.0 out of 5 stars A "dipper" that will help your English construction
The Civil Service had a mentor of the written word from which we can all still benefit. Well worth having for reference.
Published 18 months ago by Adrian
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