Learning Style and Clarity from a (Hilarious) Ten-Year-Old
The Complete Plain Words(1954)is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.
In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:
“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:
‘The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.
‘I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.
‘The man cow is call an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not each much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass'” (39).