The Drive for "Plain English"
Over the last hundred years or so Saxonism as a nationalistic
movement for the return to the pristine purity of the native
tongue has been
transformed into the drive for “Plain English”. The cry for
“Saxon English” now usually means nothing more than a demand
for plain and unaffected diction, and a condemnation of the idle
of learned length and thundering sound”. From the end of the nineteenth century such
demands have come to represent significant linguistic reflexes
of democratisation of the British society and have become part
of a general movement away from old class constraints and social
The lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler was one of the first writers
to realise the importance of a full treatment of common and everyday
words. Helped by his younger brother Francis George, he produced two
very popular books, The King’s English (1906) and A
Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). The latter remains to
this day a respected popular authority on grammar, vocabulary,
usage, and style.
In The King’s English the Fowler brothers laid down five
practical rules in the domains of vocabulary that anyone who wishes
to become a good write should follow:
Prefer the familiar word to the
Prefer the concrete word to the
Prefer the single word to the
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
In particular, the Fowler brothers underscore the last rule as a
sort of compendium of all the others, observing that “the writer
whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to
have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and
fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely”. They emphasise that this principle must be applied
intelligently: what is suitable for one sort of composition may be
unsuitable for another. One of the main dividing lines is that
between formal and informal registers, or to use the Fowler
brothers’ terms, between “the dignified and the familiar.” However,
their emphasis on simplicity as the true ideal could not but modify
the views about the choice of words for “dignified” styles.
Since the Fowler brothers, the tradition that upholds “Plain
English” has been strongly developed by A. P. Herbert, Ivor Brown,
Eric Partridge, Ernest Gowers and others. It has resulted in marked
changes in the style of white papers, nonstatutory documents,
Times leaders, and other traditional repositories of extreme
formality. In the words of Randolph Quirk:
There has been a rather widespread reaction against the remoter
aspects of formality and the sense of rigid appropriacy. We have
come to insist that the different styles of language (or dress)
required for different occasions and purposes are neither immutable
nor even absolutely obligatory.