Copy Book Archive

Straightforward English If freedom and democracy are to have any meaning, the public must be able to talk back to their governors.
Music: Benjamin Britten

© Roger Kidd, Geograph. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

Saloppy spelling?

About this picture …

English as she is spoke... In this case, deliberately mangled to make you slow down and work it out. “Dunner go to fast past ere” the signs reads “or you’ll get cussed.” The narrow lane near Upton Cresset in Shropshire passes right through the middle of a farm, where there are animals and people coming and going all the time.

Straightforward English
The euphoria that followed the Allied victory over Nazi Germany four years earlier had not clouded schoolmaster NL Clay’s wits. In Straightforward English (1949), a guide ‘designed to help an ordinary person to write a clear message’, he told the British public that we must speak plainly and never be satisfied with slogans or jargon, or we would find ourselves walking down the same unhappy road as the Germans.

TODAY more than ever we need writers of straightforward English. We need them if we are to preserve the heritage of plain prose against unceasing attacks by powerful enemies — shoddy thinking, speech appealing to prejudice, mass-entertainment with all its supporting printed matter, snobbery, and what deceives the uncritical into thinking it is ‘fine writing’. We particularly need them because of the value of clear thinking: ‘They who are learning to compose and arrange their sentences with accuracy and order are learning at the same time to think with accuracy and order.’*

If ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are to be more than catchwords, clear communication must be the rule, and not the exception. In a totalitarian state it may be sufficient for the dictator and his henchmen to be able to use straightforward language. Do we want a society in which placid masses take their orders from bosses? The alternative to government by force is government by persuasion. The latter must mean that the governed can talk back to the governors – that Tom Smith can put a pointed question to his M.P., can write an intelligible letter to the editor of a newspaper, and can exchange views with his work-mates, in speech or writing. Tom Smith and his wife are better citizens if they have learned to value and practise straightforward English.

* From Lectures on Rhetoric by the Revd Hugh Blair, the first Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. See Order and Method.


Just as dictators have a vested interest in keeping their public inarticulate, so too the ability to write and speak clearly is essential to a free and democratic society. Ordinary people can serve their country by learning to speak and write in good, plain English, and by using it to stay informed and to hold their government to account. (59 / 60 words)


From ‘Straightforward English’ (1949) by N.L. Clay.

Suggested Music

Simple Symphony

1: Boisterous Bourrée

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Performed by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, with Terje Tønnesen, leader.

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How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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