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17 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars AVOIDING CATACHRESIS, 31 Dec. 2005
This review is from: The Complete Plain Words (Hardcover)
'Catachresis' is a simple Greek word meaning 'misuse'. If you had never come across it in English before, neither had I until I read it in the second chapter of this book, where it is displayed proudly in the course of a lesson to us on the correct use of the word 'jargon'. The first edition of the book appeared in 1948, and it has reappeared in at least 5 revisions and reprints, my own copy dating from 1964. It must have sold well in that case, and while it purports to be trying to teach the British civil service how to write clearly, the author soon forgets this limited aim and treats us to yet another enthusiastic handbook on the proper use of English, a field I had thought well and truly ploughed and reploughed by Fowler, Quiller-Couch, A P Herbert and others. This is how it will have been read by its eager public, and so this is how it should be assessed. Half a century is not nearly long enough for such a work to go out of date, but of course a lot of the interest in reading it today is precisely in seeing how well it has stood the test of so many years, particularly in the age of email. However I found it even more interesting from a sociological viewpoint. 'Who's talking?' I kept asking myself. Who feels like pontificating in print on this subject, and why should the rest of us take any notice?
We can forget the ostensible objective. Who on earth supposes that the language of the civil service is even trying to be clear much of the time? Whitehall mandarins write memos designed in the main to cover their rear, just as commercial executives do. When clarity is really their aim, it is perfectly compatible with lumpish expression, bad grammar, bad syntax, bad spelling and bad handwriting. The best-crafted English in the world will not make what they say unambiguous in a court of law, as is memorably shown by the story of the use of cleaning-rags 'in shops and places other than shops'. You, I and they might have thought that covered all possibilities, but not according to the judge who ruled that a mobile ice-cream tricycle was not a place. This book is really just another guide to good English, for the general public. As such, it is intelligent, balanced, stylish, clear and good-humoured. Gowers is neither pedantic nor unduly tolerant of shoddy writing. He understands that a language is a living thing, and he does his best to judge which neologisms are part of the organic development of the language and which are pimples and warts that could do with removing. Any educated reader with an ear for the language and a love of the language could probably do as well as he does, and I wonder what he would have made of the use of 'rendition' in 2005. I feel he is wasting his breath with his complaints about philosophers' idiom at the start of chapter 8 - philosophers have to write they way they do, just as lawyers have to. Checking his tastes against my own, I find us largely in agreement. I shall go to my final reckoning innocent of using 'anticipate' to mean 'expect', or 'aftermath' to mean 'outcome'. On the other hand I think he overdoes his objection to 'feasible' in the sense of 'plausible', and I can't see that 'the troops were issued with rations' is any worse than 'the troops were given rations', but I shall correct my use of 'comprise' in future in accordance with his strictures. I also agree that brevity makes for clarity, but it has its pitfalls too, as in a recipe that told me 'remove dish from oven and stand on a hot plate', or as in the exam question 'What can be said with confidence about...?' which got the answer 'Anything. Just say it with confidence'. And I wondered during chapter 8 whether the author was familiar with the term 'agglutinative', which gives respectability to expressions consisting entirely of nouns, e.g. 'city dockside warehouse fire'.
Who's telling us all this anyhow? It's not just Ernest Gowers, it's Sir Ernest Gowers. Anyone using his title like this invites derision. Did his wife say to him at breakfast 'Would you like more toast, Sir Ernest?', or perhaps, in those tender intimate moments, 'That was wonderful, Sir Ernest, how was it for you?' The whole attitude underlying the book is a memorial of an era when Whitehall was the High Indaba of the British establishment. Future Sir Ernests took firsts in classics at Cambridge, joined the civil service and were later appointed to chair the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission (later the Coal Commission) and similar. They were the mandarin administrators of Clement Attlee's socialist commonwealth of Britain and they lived by the gospel of Whitehall Knows Best. They recruited and assessed their successors in the manner of wine-experts judging a grand cru, and they brought a similar fastidiousness to their style of writing. Clarity was important mainly for giving them a criterion in criticising the writing of other civil servants, what really mattered was a special elevated style, or what they took for such a style. Out of hours they wrote, and - worse - read, articles and letters of dumbfounding pomposity in The Times newspaper expounding this or that nicety in the use of English. They were clever men (mainly), they were upright and dedicated men, they were highly educated men, but the mystery to me in retrospect is why equally educated members of the general public ever took seriously the pretensions of any chairman of the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission (later the Coal Commission) to special expertise in the use of English. If I had at any stage been the boss of the future Sir Ernest on his way up and had caught him wrestling with The Choice of Words or such like preoccupations in His Majesty's time and at the taxpayer's expense, I think my own words to him would have been a model of the clarity he values so highly, and they would have been 'Get on with what you're paid to do'.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Feb 2009 16:18:58 GMT
Dear God, I thought this would be a comment on the book - not a diatribe on the British body politic.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2009 12:12:10 GMT
>>Dear God<<

Dear K F Leyland, I am not actually God and it may be that your post has been mis-addressed.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2009 14:37:41 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 7 Mar 2009 20:11:14 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2009 15:28:23 GMT
So glad you liked the review. As a lawyer, how do you take the judge's point about a mobile tricycle not being a place? OK, I agree to that extent, but on any occasion, even in motion, surely it has to be AT a place, and the use of the cleaning-rag can be reasonably described as being at or in the said place?

Posted on 17 Jun 2009 10:15:06 BDT
J. Forbes says:
Never have so many words been addressed to so many people with so little point. Ignore this self-important humbug, and read Bill Bryson instead.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Jun 2009 12:10:15 BDT
I shall follow your instruction.

Posted on 6 Aug 2009 01:35:07 BDT
Last edited by the author on 6 Aug 2009 01:37:55 BDT
lexo1941 says:
This is not a review of this book. This is you venting your personal dislike of a certain type of extinct civil servant.

You have misread this book. Most of Gowers' advice is aimed at civil servants who are dealing with the public, and in that respect his advice is absolutely sound, and in fact has been taken up long ago. I have been signing on as unemployed for the last twelve weeks. During that time, I have had a lot of Department of Work and Pensions literature thrust in my general direction. Having been a Gowers reader for years, I was able to mentally compare the quality of writing in the pamphlets I've been given to the quality of writing that Gowers is criticising (mostly, official letters from fifty-odd years ago). The stuff that the DWP is handing out today is a model of clarity, helpfulness and friendliness compared to the kind of thing that Gowers was writing his book against. Presumably, then, his advice has long been taken on board. I can't speak for the quality of internal memo that the civil service circulates, but Gowers isn't really talking about that.

This is not a "handbook in the proper use of English" and if it has been used as such, it's not Ernest Gowers's fault. It is a manual of clarity in the writing of official English. There is a big difference. You seem to have some sort of inverted snobbery thing going on, with regard to taking advice on grammar from someone who has been knighted. Get over it. He writes better than you.

Your review is an extended piece of silliness, and I advise you to delete it, so that nobody need read my criticism of it.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Aug 2009 09:07:16 BDT
Of course it's a review of the book. Two thirds is about the book and nothing else, only one third is about the sociology, and I have no dislike whatsoever of this kind of civil servant. I have no intention of deleting the review, because as Horace says 'nescit vox missa reverti', I get a good deal of enjoyment out of apoplectic reactions like yours, and I would not wish to deny the same enjoyment to others. However please accept my sincere good wishes for your early success in finding employment.

Posted on 15 Sep 2010 10:58:29 BDT
M. Williams says:
I thought CATACHRESIS was the pain in the wrist you get from retyping a CAPTCHA a hundred times.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Sep 2010 18:14:40 BDT
I've just checked back in my Liddell and Scott's Lexicon. The word seems to have a range of meaning varying from full use to over-full use.
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Location: Glossop Derbyshire England

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