How to Write Effective English

By Colonel Strome Galloway, ED, PSC, The Royal Canadian Regiment*


[* This lecture was given to the 1954 Class at the Canadian Army Staff College. It was designed to familiarize students with the type of written English required at the College. Much of the basic material was obtained from Sir Ernest Gowers' "ABC of Plain Words." - Author.]


"One of the first signs of education is the use of short, expressive English, instead of the muddled jargon of eight syllables which reflects the muddled mind." So said Dr. Fieldhouse, a professor at McGill University. And it was an 18th Century scientist, Pascal, who wrote: "I hope you will pardon me for writing such a long letter, but I did not have the time to write a shorter one." In these two statements we have the keynotes of the Effective Writing Series at the Staff College. It is a matter of fact that most writing done by Staff Officers falls short of the required standard because the writers present papers which are full of muddled jargon and do not take the time to write short, clear, understandable English. Unless this Class is different from those Classes which have been within these walls before, the main weakness in its written expression will be that SIMPLE, DIRECT, BRIEF English will not be used, but that fancy-worded, long-winded papers which are difficult to understand, tiresome to read and incapable of achieving their aim will be produced by nine out of ten students! Nor is poorly written English the province of the Army Officer alone. University professors and leading business executives join with senior army officers in telling us that the greatest offenders against good writing today are not school children, but educated adults, people who, since they have left school or university, have allowed their written expression to become so laden with unnecessary, pompous, empty and abstract words; so full of padding and circumlocution that they have almost lost the art of communicating ideas to others. Why this should have come about is not easy to understand, but certainly among the reasons is the fact that it stems from an idea that long, involved writing shows education, dignity and literary ability. This idea, I assure you, is quite wrong. Before I get into the subject of my lecture in earnest - that subject being, "How to write Effective English", I want to point out why it is important that you do write what we call Effective English. There are two main reasons: First, the aim of all writing is to communicate ideas. If your writing fails to communicate the ideas it is supposed to, then it serves no purpose. If it even slightly confuses it is doing a dis- service, rather than no service at all. It may confuse because you, the writer, are incapable of, or too careless to bother, expressing yourself properly. It may confuse, not because your style of expression is perfectly clear to those of your own intellect, but because you are not clever enough to realize that there are others, including your readers, who need things stated simply. Second, your written work is a mirror of your mind at the time you wrote it. More dreadful even than this, is the fact that it is a permanent reflection! As the Bible says: "That which is written is written." And in the Rubyat of Omar Khayyam we find: -

"The moving finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on; Nor all your Piety not Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."

That these statements are true will be perfectly obvious when you look through any Headquarters' files. There it is, what you, or some other Staff Officer has written. Faulty, obscure, even meaningless English for all the world to see. No matter how extensive your knowledge, how brilliant your thoughts, it is the written expression which sits in judgement upon you. You have condemned yourself in writing. You have been guilty of expressing yourself so that others cannot understand you. Mark well, many an average fellow has written himself into the seats of the mighty by painstaking development of his writing ability and many a self- confident, embryogenius has remained in the background because he either could not; or would not write so that others could understand! And now, how can we overcome these faults? How can we improve our writing and by doing so, perhaps even improve our own position in the military field? I think I can give you some useful hints on how to do it. The aim of this lecture is two-fold: First, to point out to you why so much written English is not effective, and, Second, to give you some hints on how to write Effective English; or, to be precise, how to write one brand of Effective English. Now, the brand of Effective English which we want to develop at the Staff College is that which has four main qualities. These qualities are: CLARITY CONCISENESS SIMPLICITY ACCURACY Since the aim of all writing is to communicate ideas it is perfectly obvious that to be effective in this respect it must be clear. If it is not clear, then there is really no purpose in writing. Words are the messengers which convey our ideas to others. Therefore, we must choose our words and arrange our words so that those who receive them from us are able to understand exactly what we mean. Remember, if a Staff Officer has all the knowledge and thinking ability in the world and cannot communicate his ideas in writing, his knowledge is in doubt and his thinking is of little use. Conciseness. It may not be important to the novelist who writes to give entertainment by means of long, drawn out narratives and descriptive passages; but to the Staff Officer it is important. Neither he, nor his reader, has the time to flounder through long, involved writing trying to find the hidden jewel of meaning which nestles among excess verbiage like a pearl in a sack of wool. Simplicity. This is the key to everything, I think. If we are simple we have a much greater chance of being understood than if we are not. If we use simple words we can cut out explanatory phrases. If we use short, simple sentences we can steer clear of the pitfalls of punctuation. If we strive for simplicity in construction we need not fear grammatical errors to the same degree. Accuracy. The staff officer must be accurate in his writing, as in all other phases of his work. If we are guilty of inaccurate statements in our writing we are going to create the need for letters of inquiry, letters correcting mistaken impressions - we are going to communicate wrong ideas. Thus, our writing, no matter how CLEAR, how CONCISE and how SIMPLE it has been, is not going to be effective unless it is ACCURATE. Our watchwords, therefore, are: CLARITY, CONCISENESS, SIMPLICITY and ACCURACY. Few of us are competent enough with the pen to adorn our writing, to attempt oratorical phrases, to use what is sometimes called "the well turned word" and the "well rounded phrase", without obscuring our meaning, or without trespassing on the time available to the recipient of our writings. Leave these niceties to the experts in language; let us speak "plain and to the point like an honest man and a soldier." I know, that while I have been speaking, you, like most educated English-speaking adults, have been thinking: "Why all this? We have been writing English for years!" And so you have; and as a result you are probably just as unwilling to take advice on this subject as you would be on your table manners or your love life! For your writing, like these other two matters, is a very personal thing. It is a habit which you have developed over a long period; a way of doing which is acceptable to yourselves. Well, your table manners do not concern us, nor does your love life, really. However, it has been our experience here that most students' writing, unless they have been literary paragons, although acceptable to themselves, was not acceptable to the Staff College. Therefore, your writing does concern us. Unfortunately, we have neither the ability, nor the time here to go into lengthy instruction in the refinements of grammar and composition. We cannot, really, get to the root of the trouble in a thoroughly academic way. But, we can give you a remedy to help. We are not Doctors of Letters, we are merely pharmacists - the Staff College is not a literary clinic, it is just a corner drug store. We can give you the doctor's prescription, but not his treatment. You, in turn, must have faith. Take the prescription, and if the doctors, (that is, the language experts) who have diagnozed the writing ills of the adult English-speaking world are correct, then your writing will improve. We will give you exercises, letters, memoranda and essays as the sugar-coated pills necessary to get you to benefit from the medicine recommended by the authorities! Now, if you are really bad, you will probably be writing this way: "It is with considerable pleasure that I inform you that experience has provided us with undoubted proof that the process of osculation is one which renders us capable of achieving an extreme degree of amusement." After eleven months of using the prescription you will write: "Kissing is fun." That, gentlemen, is Effective English: the verbiage preceding it will get you nowhere. or, you will write: "The proprietor of an agricultural establishment proceeded to extract the lactic secretion contained in the mammary glands of a female quadruped of the bovine species." What you mean, of course, is: "A farmer milked a cow." And now, to more specific things: To supplement our lectures and our exercises we issue you with two books - "Writing and Thinking" and the "ABC of Plain Words". Use these books constantly and with them use a good dictionary. I suggest "The Concise Oxford Dictionary" as the most suitable for Canadian Army purposes. It was Anatole France who said: "There are three requisites for all good writing; the first is clarity, the second is clarity and the third is clarity." The easiest way to achieve clarity is to be CONCISE, SIMPLE and ACCURATE. The enemies of these four qualities are: Pompous and unfamiliar words. Abstract words. Padding or verbosity (too many words). Circumlocution (the roundabout procession of words). The passive voice (the weak arrangement of words). Cliché's and slang (worn-out, hackneyed words and careless words of doubtful meaning). Wrong words (misused words). Remember, words are of no use except to convey ideas. They are not used to fill up gaps in our thinking, to obscure meaning, or to show our readers how many words we know and how badly we can use them. Your choice and arrangement of words is the basis of your writing. They are the agents which will do your bidding. After all, phrases, sentences and paragraphs are only platoons, companies and battalions of words marshalled to express your thoughts. It is the words that count in the first place. It is the poor selection and arrangement of words which makes your phrases, sentences and paragraphs incapable of carrying out their task, which is to express your ideas.

Choice of Words

Here are six rules for the choice of words: 1. Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched: "Start" or "Begin", not "Initiate" "Make" not "Render" "Send" not "Transmit". 2. Use concrete words not the abstract: Don't write: "The unfortunate situation in China" Write: "The FLOOD in China" "The FAMINE in China" "The WAR in China". "The WAR in China". Your readers can see or feel these things. "Unfortunate situation" is not concrete: it is vague, indefinite. 3. Use the single word instead of the circumlocution: "No", not "the answer is in the negative" "Scarce", not "in short supply" "Some", not "a percentage of, or "a proportion of". 4. Prefer the short word or words, to the long: carry out", rather than "implement" "died before", rather than "predeceased" "able to walk", rather than "capable of locomotion" "please tell me", rather than "will you be good enough to advise me" as soon as possible", not "with the minimum of delay" "go", not "proceed" "so", not "consequently". 5. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance: The Romance is usually pompous or unfamiliar. "steal", not "purloin" "many" , not "numerous" "ground", not "terrain" "brave", not "gallant" "theft", not "larceny". 6. Use words which mean what you mean: Don't write LIABLE if you mean LIKELY. Liable means that your subject is going to suffer something prejudicial. He is liable to a fine for speeding. He is likely to get his majority. Don't write PRACTICAL if you mean PRACTICABLE. Practical is the opposite to theoretical. It means useful in practice. Practicable means capable of being carried out in action. The lawn mower is practical, but it is not practicable to use it on this slope. 6. Don't write AFFECT when you mean EFFECT. Effect is both a noun and a verb. Affect is only a verb. You can say, "the effect was startling" (noun). "My plans are affected" is almost the exact opposite to "my plans are effected" (verbs). In one, (affected) they were met by an obstacle; the other (effected), they were carried out. Now, I do not mean, for a minute, that you must not use some long, elegant, or Romance words. There may be that place, or this, when the choice falls on the pretty word as the best word. But, generally speaking, for the purposes of military writing, they are not as easily understood, not as brief, not as easily worked into the fabric of your writing as the short, concrete, Saxon, single words. If you habitually use them your writing becomes involved, woolly and lengthy; in other words, you are in danger of losing clarity. When we don't strike down the enemies of clarity we find that we are writing to a greater or lesser degree a form of English known as "gobbledygook". That is the type of writing which includes empty words, unfamiliar words, pompous words, verbosity, the weak passive voice and circumlocution. And when we fall into this morass we automatically get entangled with the additional difficulties of spelling errors, punctuation errors, faulty sentence construction and long and vague paragraphs. I will have more to say about "gobbledygook" later.

Abstract versus Concrete Words

When you use an abstract word where you could use a concrete word you are handicapping yourself in your task of making yourself understood. What are abstract words? What are concrete words? Well, abstract words are those words separated from matter, like "thought", whereas concrete words are those words which are things, rather than qualities: like "brain". Some familiar abstracts are: "situation, "condition", "position" Here is an abstract: "The situation in regard to gold is causing alarm." What situation, you ask? In what regard? Why alarm? The sentence may mean several things to several different people, but if we use the concrete we say "Gold is scarce", then everyone knows what we mean. Note, also, how concise the statement becomes when it is concrete; how simple, how clear, and accurate. It obeys all four qualities of effective writing! Again, the abstract: "Weather conditions are not good." What conditions? What have they to do with the weather? Is the weather fair? Concrete: "The weather is bad." Beware of such words as "situation", "position", "conditions". Avoid the words which end in "tions". Mr Churchill in a radio address of 1940 wanted his listeners to understand him. He did not say: "The position in regard to France is extremely serious." His listeners would wonder "what position", "in what regard", "serious", "how serious"? He said: "The news from France is bad." Everybody knows what "news" is; and everybody knows what "bad" means. Force your reader to touch, feel and see what you are talking about: "Man" is concrete. It is a physical object. "Humanity" is abstract. It is a quality - the quality possessed by man. You cannot see "humanity", but you can see "man". We need abstract nouns, but we should not use them to excess. There are two main reasons: 1. Abstractions cause statements to be made in a roundabout instead of a direct way and the meaning is more difficult to grasp. 2. Abstract nouns have less precise meanings than concrete ones. They should be avoided if you want your meaning to be plain. One more example: "Dealing with the egg position, he said it exceeded all expectations." What is an "egg position"? Do you know? I don't. How can "a position" "exceed all expectations"? I think that what he meant was: "Eggs will be more plentiful than expected." That is a concrete statement.

Padding, Verbosity, the Use of Empty or Useless Words

Some good examples of this very common fault in writing are phrases like: "It will be noted that..." "It will be appreciated that..." Instead of writing, "It will be noted that tomorrow is Sunday and the stores will be closed", all we need write is, "Tomorrow is Sunday and the stores will be closed." What does "It will be noted that" add? The answer is nothing, yet the type of writer who puts in these empty words once will do it a dozen times and in a paper of three or four pages we will find six or seven lines which mean nothing. Is that effective writing? There are other choice phrases: "You will moreover observe that..." "You will moreover observe that women are beautiful." This phrase is almost an insult. The writer is assuming that the last part of the sentence "women are beautiful" cannot be understood by the reader, that the reader has not this power of discernment. Then there are: "I am further to point out..." "I would also add..." Away with such nonsense! And the same with such phrases as: "in relation to" "in regard to" "in connection with" "in the case of" What do all these things mean? The answer is nothing. Don't say: "In the case of unmarried personnel they will be given ten days' notice." Say: "Unmarried personnel will be given ten days' notice." Padding comes partly from a feeling that wordiness is an ingredient of politeness and that a blunt statement is crude, if not rude. There is some truth in this; but it is a matter of degree. In the main, however, military prose calls for plainness rather than elegance. The false dignities which surround much official writing (or should I say writers) seem to demand a certain verbosity. Naked truth is considered indecent by some. They think it must be clothed in wrappings of woolly words and phrases. Men who write with padding as their hallmark are gilders of the lily. One last example, the ubiquitous "in order". "In order to tell you the news quickly I phoned"..."in order", like the artillery, is everywhere, but unlike the artillery it serves no purpose. Strike it out ruthlessly. Never write "in order" - "to" is sufficient. "To tell you the news quickly, I phoned." Other choice bits of padding are: "for your information" "for your benefit" Example: "I have received your letter of 4 December, and for your information the following extract from regulations under the Act is quoted for your benefit." It is obvious that it is "for your information" and "for your benefit". Therefore to state the obvious is a waste of words.


Here we have the roundabout procession of words - the indirect statement. Circumlocution is that quality of writing which develops when we use the Passive Voice, and the prepositions which I have touched on in my remarks on padding, such as: "as regards" "as to" "in respect of" ... and so on. Here is a circumlocution: "I should be glad if you would be good enough to confirm the settlement and it would be of assistance to me if you are prepared to state the terms thereof and the approximate proportion of the full claim which such settlement represents." (Indirect - 43 words). The same statement: "Will you please confirm the settlement. It would help me if you tell me its terms, and how the amount compares with your full claim." (Direct - 25 words).

The Passive Voice

This is the only real sally which I make into the realm of grammar. As you probably recall from your school days there are two voices: 1. The Active Voice 2. The Passive Voice The active voice is where the subject performs the action. Example: "The colonel kicked the wine steward." 1. "Colonel" - subject; "kicked"- verb; "wine steward" - object. When, however, the subject suffers the action the verb is said to be in the passive and we call it the passive voice. Example: "The wine steward was kicked by the colonel." 2. "Wine steward" becomes the subject: "colonel" is merely the agent of the verb. The passive voice is generally agreed to be weak. Usually there is an increase in words, i.e., verbosity, a lack of power; the act is not as easily pictured by the mind of the reader. The verb has no strength. Other examples are: Active: "John kissed Mary." (SMACK) You can almost hear it! Passive: "Mary was kissed by John." A rather dull statement, don't you think? Active: "He gave me a book." Passive: "A book was given to me by him." (Wordy, woolly). These sentences in the passive voice are not as clear and strong; that is, as effective as those in the active voice. Of course, some variety may be required, but use plenty of the active voice in preference to the passive.

Cliches and Slang

Cliche's and slang are to be avoided in writing, even more so than in speech. Cliche's are hackneyed, worn-out, over-worked words or phrases which do little but show the writer's barren brain in full relief. They must be avoided. "Break the ice", "Cry over spilt milk", "tender mercies", "the acid test". These may have been good in the days of their youth, but now in their decrepitude they merely annoy readers and point out that their user is without adequate reserves of good English. They are the volksgrenadiers of our army of words. When we use these battered old veterans we are almost defeated! Slang may be acceptable in conversation, but it has little place in writing. It is like a risqué story; it may go over in intimate, face-to-face conversation, but when it is committed to paper it loses much of its spice and only condemns the writer in the eyes of those who may not have the same sense of humour or the same lack of propriety as he has. Two familiar examples: "Laid on", when you mean "arranged" or "organized." "Tidied up", when you mean "completed". Now, just some suggestions on a few points of construction. I am no grammarian; I really know nothing about it. However, CLARITY and CONCISENESS can be helped by such things as:


This is a subject which causes much argument even among the experts. If you make a practice of writing short, simple sentences you need not worry too much about it. The best advice I have on this subject is to tell you to study the sections on punctuation which are contained in the textbooks which have been issued to you. Remember, punctuation is meant to give clarity in meaning. The comma is the most misused of all punctuation marks. When in doubt, don't use it. Beware of semi-colons. More often than not you can make a new sentence. Overuse of the semicolon can get you into involved sentences which cannot be understood. The test of really good writing is when it can be readily understood with a minimum of punctuation. And in your writing don't use dashes, they are the "word-whiskers" of the written page.


Proper arrangement is usually the result of constant practice, plus a little forethought before committing your words to paper. Don't confuse people by writing sentences like this: "He was appointed Commander-in-Chief although he had limited military experience and no naval." That is not only bad English it is a phenomenon!

Length of Sentences

How long should a sentence be? People often ask for yardsticks here. Well, Rudolph Flesch, an expert in writing, defines "standard" English as that level of writing found in Reader's Digest, and here sentences average 17 words. In Queen Elizabeth I's day the average written sentence ran to about 45 words; the Victorian sentence to about 29 words and ours to 20 or fewer. In these days of haste we are becoming briefer. Remember, again, that short sentences avoid the pitfalls of grammar and punctuation, and therefore obscurity of meaning. Read some Elizabethan writing and you will know what I mean. However, some variety in length of sentences is desirable so that the reader is not jolted and jerked continuously. Too much starting and stopping makes unpleasant reading.


A paragraph has been described as a "mindful". It is a group of sentences which relate one to another. When that which the succession of sentences have discussed can be boxed up as a "mindful" stop your paragraph and start a new one. Don't ask your reader to grasp too much without a break. The paragraph is not a unit of length, but a unit of thought. Do not contain in one paragraph sentences which do not have unity of thought among themselves. A paragraph should be a complete development of a topic. The average length of a paragraph in a piece of serious writing is about 150 words. It should not exceed 300 words. When you see several paragraphs on a page, or a paragraph of a page or more in length, you should look for lack of unity - undeveloped topics in the first case, or a multitude of topics in one paragraph in the second case. If you practise conciseness you can probably say all you need about a topic in under 150 words. But, "be ye moderate in all things": avoid a succession of short choppy paragraphs if you want your ideas to flow like a golden stream of wisdom.

In SUMMARY, I will return to the descriptive word "Gobbledygook". Gobbledygook is that form of written English which results when people do not take the advice I have just been giving them. It has been defined as "a written output obscurely constructed, full of tiresome phrases and encumbered with many ill chosen combinations of words." It is a legacy we have inherited from the Victorian Age. It is as much out of date as button boots and bustles. In 1890 it might have been acceptable to write: "It is with regret that I beg to advise you that the answer must, of necessity, be in the negative." But today our surreys have no fringe on top and neither should our writings. We must streamline our writing to keep up with modern conditions. We must learn to say "NO"; - tactfully, but not fearfully; briefly, not hidden in a maze of meaningless verbiage. Those who think they appear rather well-educated by using pompous, verbose English usually are afraid to say what they mean. They don't communicate their ideas so they can be readily understood. Their statements lack effect. They say: "Commit yourself to that place of unredeemable souls." That is not nearly as effective as "GO TO H - L." These same people say: "in the initial stages", instead of "at first"; "circumstances which obtained prior to the outbreak of hostilities", instead of "matters before the war". This type of English must be abandoned by every one of us. Never be guilty of "gobbledygook". It is not the hallmark of the literary giant; it is the brand on the brow of the unlettered pigmy. There is just one more warning. Two things to remember: First: To whom am I writing? Second: For whom am I writing? Here it is where you will find the secret of whether or not it is permissible to deviate somewhat from the bald, simple English I have recommended; whether a certain in-directness is needed at the expense of conciseness. But, whatever you do, don't sacrifice CLARITY.

In conclusion may I quote to you from Mika Waltari's, The Egyptian. This is a novel, the scene of which is laid 2000 years before Christ. A wise man counseling a would-be soldier, said: "A warrior need not write, only fight. If he could write, he would be an officer with command over the most valiant, whom he would send before him into battle. Anyone who can write is fit for command, but a man who cannot scribble pothooks will never have even so many as a hundred under him. What joy can he take in gold chains and honours when it is the fellow with the reed pen in his hand who gives the orders? Thus it is, and thus it will be - and so, my lad, if you would command men and lead them, learn to write. Then those with the gold chains will bow down before you and slaves will carry you in a chair to the field of battle." Now, in the 20th Century you may not achieve the privilege of being carried to the field of battle in a chair borne by slaves, but, you may, if you can write, ride to the field of battle in a well-heated, well-lit, comfortable caravan. Learn to write, gentlemen.

Learn to write with CLARITY, CONCISENESS, SIMPLICITY and ACCURACY. It will make it possible for you to serve the Army as Staff Officers with increased efficiency. It may even mean that your own career will be the greater.