Who was Sir Ernest Gowers?

While browsing in one of the many second hand bookshops in Scotland, I came across a familiar name: Sir Ernest Gowers.

Gowers, known for his revision of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, also published other reference works such as the gem which I can now proudly call mine: The Complete Plain Words, a combination of Gowers’s Plain Words and The ABC of Plain Words. Intrigued by my new acquisition, I wanted to know more about who Sir Ernest Arthur Gowers was and why he was entrusted with the revision of Modern English Usage.

Gowers working as public servant during war

Gowers (1880 -1966) worked and gained an excellent reputation as a public servant chairing numerous associations and commissions in England. His impressive career as a public servant, however, struck me as odd, yet fascinating, having known Gowers only for his revision of Fowler. So what was it then that made him qualified for taking on the revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (MEU)?

The Complete Plain Words

The Complete Plain Words

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Gowers’s entry was written by none other than Robert W. Burchfield, author of the third revision of MEU), Gowers’s writing style of simple and unambiguous English procured him, first of all, with the task of writing Plain Words as an introduction for new members of the public service in 1948. The immediate and international success of Plain Words put Gowers finally on the map and a sequel The ABC of Plain Words was published in 1951. Since Gowers’s work showed great influence of Fowler, Oxford University Press entrusted Gowers with the revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which he completed at the age of 85.

Gowers’s attempt to promote plain English and to eradicate “officialese” can be seen in the following extract from The Complete Plain Words.

     The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual, instead of the plain phrase the cliché. (Gowers, 1954: 47)

The previous post on the blog discussed the 10 golden rules of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who aimed at doing the same. Whose advice is more useful is a verdict left for the readers to decide.

About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a sociolinguist. In September 2017, she has obtained her PhD in Linguistics from Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL) in the Netherlands, where she worked on a project on language attitudes and prescriptivism in British English. Carmen's research interests include all things sociolinguistics. In particular, she is interested in linguistic discrimination, attitude elicitation techniques, language variation and change, and historical sociolinguistics.
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1 Response to Who was Sir Ernest Gowers?

  1. Carmen Ebner says:

    Reblogged this on Proper English Usage and commented:

    Sir Ernest Gowers is known for his revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. However, there is more to find out about Sir Ernest Gowers.

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