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Précis writing for beginners online

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Royal Naval Colleg-e, Dartmouth

Late Head of the History and English Department, Military Sid«,

Cheltenham College





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The object of this little book is to teach precis writ-
ing from the very start. It has been found from
experience that the average boy who in the Lower
Fifth Form starts making precis of Government Blue
Books and Collected Correspondence, will flounder
about for a whole term without understanding what
he is really expected to do.

The following exercises are progressive and the
rules of strict precis writing are learnt one by one.
The exercises are really very simple parodies of
Government Reports, &c., such as a boy will have to
deal with in the higher forms and the Army Examina-
tions. They are arranged in groups, e.g. Reports,
Correspondence, Trials, Ships'' Logs, and so forth.
After working through the series a boy should be
perfectly competent to tackle the real thing.

Incidentally, there is no better training than precis
writing for concentration of thought and expression.

G. N. P.

Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
April, 1 91 7.



1. Reported Steech - lo

2. George Oakes i3

3. The Cobra - - - - 15

4. The Two Lieutenants - - .... - 19

5. The Black Republic - - 23

6. The Professor and the Monkeys - - - - 27

7. The Island - 3'

8. A Seventeenth-Century Witch Trial - - - 35

9. The Miser - - - - 39

10. The Boy Scouts 43

11. Child Labourers in 1836 47

12. The Museum, 300 b.c. - •■ 5'

13. The Warning - - - - - 55

14. Science as taught in our Great-grandfathers'

School-days 59

15. The Hut-Tax 63

16. The Mandarin - - 69

17. Isaac Newton - -•• - - -73

18. The Battle of the Nile 77


What Precis Means

A precis is the essence of a longer story of any
kind. You take your story and ' boil it down ', so
as to get rid of all the parts that do not really matter;
you then collect what is left, and put these points
together in a short concise 'summary'. But the
result must not be a Mist' of important points, or a
series of 'jottings'. It must be the same story told
clearly and readably, in a very much condensed form.

For instance, you may have to make a precis of
a long pile of letters dealing with some particular
subject; or perhaps the account of a trial; or a long
report written by one individual. It doesn't matter
what the longer 'story' is. What you have to do
is to read it through, extract all the parts that matter,
and put them down in readable form.

The Object of these Exercises

Now precis writing is unlike free English composi-
tion. It is much more exact and scientific; and it
must be written according to certain definite rules.
It is no use trying to learn all the rules at once; you
will learn them one by one, and without trouble, as
you work through the following exercises.

These exercises are not the real Government Blue


Books, reports, trials, &c., that you will have to tackle
later on. They are all 'made up'. But they are
exactly like the real thing. The only difference is
that they are much easier and shorter — and they are
not so dull. And as they are the same sort of thing
on a small scale, you should be able to deal with the
real ones later on when you meet them.

How to tackle a Precis

All precis, whether easy or difficult, should be
tackled in the same way. First read the whole thing
through very carefully without writing any notes or
underlining any passages.

All depends on this first reading. For if you once
get into the way of writing your precis or even mak-
ing notes *as you go along', you will never grasp
the subject as a whole. And the result will be that
your precis will lack balance. Either you will write
too much about the first half and skimp the rest, or
you will write a great deal about the picturesque
points that appeal to you, and leave out things that
really matter.

When you have read it carefully through, and got
the whole story in your mind, run through it quickly
a second time marking the passages you mean to use.
For the purposes of this book the best plan will be
to underline in pencil those passages which will have
to be used with little alteration, and to put a wavy
line against those which cannot be left out alto-
gether, but must be greatly condensed.

Last, work up all the marked passages into a short
continuous 'story'.

Rule I. — Start your Precis with a title.

This title must not be of the imaginative kind that
would suit a story, such as 'A Misunderstanding',


or * The Adventures of a Red Cross Man '. It must
be a clear and concise statement of what the precis is
about. Thus: "Precis of the correspondence be-
tween the British Government and Dr. Wilson,
President of the United States, concerning contra-
band of war ". And if dates are given you should
add, "between Feb. 18, 1915, and Oct., 1916".

Rule II. — Every Precis must be written in the

This rule is so important that it is impossible to
write a precis till it is thoroughly understood. It will
be necessary to explain what is meant by ' reported
speech ', and to practise a few examples.

" Reported Speech "

Suppose you say to somebody, "I can't be bothered,
as I am busy writing a precis!" you are using a form
which is called Direct speech. And suppose the
person you were addressing goes away and says
to somebody else, "So-and-so said he couldn't be
bothered, as he was busy writing a precis", he is
reporting what you said. In other words, he has
turned your ' direct speech ' into ' reported speech '.

Notice what has happened. You are no longer the
person speaking, but the person spoken about: there-
fore ' I ' becomes ' he '. Also you are no longer
speaking: what you said is now 'in the past';
therefore 'can't' becomes 'could not' and 'am' be-
comes ' was '.

This is quite straightforward. The difficulty arises
when you are dealing with words that imply future
time. Without going into the syntax, one may just
explain that in Reported speech the 'future' must
be referred back to the time at which the Direct state-
ment was spoken. Thus: "I will write when I get


home", becomes "He said that he would write when
he goi home ".

Thus for the purposes of simple precis writing the
following rules must be observed: —

(a) Never use the First or Second persons: always
the Third.

(d) Never use the Present tense: always the Past.

(c) Never use the Future tense: always refer it back
to the past. Even a verb such as 'must', which
usually implies the future, should be changed to
' would have to ', or some such phrase.

(d) Possessive adjectives, my, your, our, must be
changed to the Third person.

(e) Adverbs and adverbial phrases must be changed
in the same way. 'Now' becomes 'then'; 'at the
present time' becomes 'at that time'; 'here' be-
comes ' there ', and so on.

Take one more example. You know this familiar
quotation: "I will arise and go to my Father, and
say unto Him, ' Father, I have sinned against Heaven
and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called
Thy son'".

Now suppose you were telling the story of the
Prodigal Son to a Japanese gentleman, or somebody
who had not heard it before, and you wished to keep
pretty close to the original, you might put it in this
way: "The prodigal son then determined that he
would arise and go to his Father, and confess that he
had sinned before Him and against Heaven, and was
no more worth v to be called His son ".

Compare these two forms, and note all the dif-


No. I. — Exercises in "Reported Speech"

(i.) The following are written in the form of Direct
speech. Rewrite them in Reported speech: —

(a) "Sister Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone
coming?" asked the poor wife again.

" I see nothing but a cloud of dust," her sister

(b) "I cannot speak to you here and now; but after
the match is over I shall take the first opportunity of
telling you exactly what I think of you."

(c) " I don't know whether I shall be able to come.
I will if I can, but that must depend on how things
turn out. At this moment I cannot say definitely
that I will come."


(2.) Report the following speech, beginning thus: —

**On rising to introduce Mr. Elijah Timmins, the
mayor elect, the retiring mayor said that ..."

"Gentlemen, I have the honour to bring to your
notice Mr. Elijah Timmins, who is to be your mayor
for the coming year. Mr. Timmins, gentlemen, has
had — not the experience /have had, of course, for inv
experience has been exceptional. I have had a hard
struggle, gentlemen, but by solid work and honest
dealing — and you will bear me out when I say that
my pork sausages are always of the highest order — 1
raised myself to the top of the tree. Modesty forbids
me to speak of myself, gentlemen; but I have felt that
in these times of war and stress it is very important
to have at the helm a mayor of real tact and business
capacity; and I cannot help thinking that I have been
the right man in the right place. With Lord Nelson
I may say, ' Thank God I have done my duty '.

"Mr. Timmins, gentlemen, is about to step into
my shoes; and I only trust he will not undo the good
work that I have done."



We are now in a position to write precis in its
simplest form. We will try a few very easy examples
first, such as "George Oakes " and the '* Cobra";
after that the exercises will become more difficult.


The following is a letter written by an old cottager
to the Squire of his Parish. Condense it to half the
length, correcting the spelling and grammar. It is
very simple, as there is only one 'subject', and
therefore only one paragraph. But it will serve to
introduce this most important rule of Precis writing:

Rule III. — All points essential to the subject
MUST be put in; while all unessential points, re-
petitions, &c., should be left out.

(We may modify the second half of this rule later

Remember that it must be written as ' reported
speech '.


No. 2.— George Oakes

Ivy Cottage,
Dear Sir,

I ope you are quite well as this leaves me at
present which my wife as the swolen glans something
bitter but I do not complain it being the Will of
God, which my wife do so most monotinous. Dear
Sir I ave been out of work Severn weeks come
Toosdy and the price of coals is rose something
crool which I cannot afford them nohow, and my
wife havin the swolen glans and wot not. Dear Sir
if you could give me a job of work in the garden or
the fowlouse I should take it most grateful bein bread
and born in the fowlouse in a manner of speakin
sixty years man and boy I ave ad truck with fowls.
Dear Sir you ave the oner to know me so long there
is no need of Referances, which perraps you might
not ave heard my experance in the foulouse which
believe me sir I understands all manner of Fowls,
poultry and wot not, and my wife as ad truck with
ducks but she bein laid aside with the swolen glans
she cannot come out which b^in the Will of God I
do not complain. Dear Sir perraps you would like
to give me a trial seein as how I do not live far a
way bein strong in the Legs. Dear Sir if you will
give me a Trial I will take it most kind.

Dear Sir God bless you and trousers you give me
are fine and warm as everso which they are a bit
narrer but not to mention.

Yours umble Dear Sir

George Oakes.



The following is also very simple, and may be done
in one paragraph often or twelve lines.

Make up your mind what the real subject of this
paragraph should be; and notice that the colonel is
not really of the slightest importance to the story —
except that he tells it.

Don't forget the title, beginning " Precis of . . .".


No. 3. — The Cobra

"Talking of snakes," said the colonel, pushinc:
back his chair and lighting another cheroot, " reminds
me of a curious incident tliat happened when I was
stationed at Ghurrapore, in the early 'eighties. Ghur-
rapore was an infernal bad place for snakes, and the
worst of the lot was the cobra or hooded snake. These
cobras, or hooded snakes, turned up everywhere — in
your bath, under the verandah, anywhere. Now, one
day one of my officers. Lieutenant Simpson, went
into the officers' changing-room to get a pair of tennis
shoes. There were a dozen pairs in a wooden box;
and not seeing his own on the top he put his hand in
to fish out the bottom ones. Now you must know
that there had been a regular plague of cobras, or
hooded snakes, in the lines, and we were all a bit
panicky; so when Simpson suddenly felt something
pricking him, and drew out his hand to find two
drops of blood on his little finger, he at once con-
cluded it was a cobra, or hooded snake.

" I was sitting in the club at the time drinking some
of that excellent 7 star whisky — you remember it,
Major? And when I saw young Simpson running
across the compound holding his little finger, I at
once said to myself, ' That's a hooded snake or cobra!'

" 1 then followed him to the carpenter's shop ; but by
the time I got there the thing was done. He had
taken a heavy chisel, and cut his little finger right
off! I helped him back to the club, sent for the
doctor, and gave Simpson a dose of that 7 star whisky
— you remember it, Major? I then sent four men to
the changing-room armed with sticks. We upset the
box and beat those shoes unmercifully — but no cobra


or hooded snake! When I felt that the situation was
quite safe, I myself examined the box. And there
sticking- up through the bottom boards were two
little nails, sharp and close together! And so young
Simpson had cut his finger off for nothing! Infernal
bad luck I call it. Infernal bad luck. For anyone —
even I myself — would easily have mistaken the * bite '
for that of a cobra, or hooded snake."

( C S79 )

( 879 )



The following is a study in contrasts. The rest
is really quite subsidiary. Bring out this point by
means of contrasting paragraphs.

Condense the descriptions of the characters as much
as you can, without leaving out more points than you
can help.


No. 4. — The Two Lieutenants

Extract from the Autobiography of Admiral Sir
Hercules Prout, K.C.B.

"... The sphere of influence of the British Navy
comprising as it does the waters of the entire globe,
it follows that the average naval officer comes into
contact with all sorts and conditions of men ; and if
he uses his opportunities he will inevitably become
a rare judge of human character. He will tend to
range men in groups whether they be his own officers
or men, or persons cf every race and grade of society
with whom lie comes into contact.

"Captains of H.M. Ships are often called upon to
use powers of selection and discrimination. I recall
one particular instance in which I was called upon to
select from among my junior officers one who could
carry through a difficult and dangerous business, the
success or failure of which would be attended with
far-reaching consequences. No matter now what the
business was. Suffice to say that it was connected
with gun-running on the part of certain unfriendly
chiefs, and indirectly with the influence of a so-called
friendly European power. A delicate business re-
quiring rare qualities of daring and tact, and an
aptitude for diplomacy and espionage.

" I retired to my cabin and went through the list of
all officers above the rank of midshipman, crossing
out the unsuitable till I had reduced my choice to two.
These I will call Lieutenant X and Lieutenant Z.

•' Lieutenant X was a very large and powerful fellow,
with fair hair and blue-grey eyes — a typical Saxon.
He was a magnificent athlete and had played back
for the Navy. He was a clever fellow too — I had


noticed that — though he pretended not to be. His
manner was boisterous and frank, and sometimes he
used this as bhiff. (I recall several instances — but
that is neither here nor there.) He was very popular,
for he * had a way with him', and often made people
tell him things when they had had no intention of
doing so. His manner was so pleasant that most
people failed to realize how masterful he was. As a
boy on the Britannia he had been a strong chief
cadet captain, and yet contrived to be very popular.
Add to this he was a capital seaman, and could turn
his hand to anything, especially in emergency; and
in those days and that part of the world emergencies
were frequent.

" Lieutenant Z was the very antithesis of Lieutenant
X both in appearance and manner. He was small
and dark and wiry; his features were very clean-cut,
and his thin lips pressed tightly together in a per-
fectly straight line gave an impression of immense
determination. He was then quite one of the cleverest
lieutenants in the Navy, and as shrewd as he was
clever. He was very reticent, and he possessed a
' biting' tongue, if one may be allowed a queer meta-
phor; no one ever knew what he was thinking about
unless he told them, and then he often told them what
he did not really think. And so he was feared but
not liked. I had never known him to be taken by
surprise; and he was an absolutely dead shot with a

" After taking into consideration all the possible cir-
cumstances with which my emissary was likely to be
faced, I made my decision, and sent for Lieutenant Z.
I need hardly say that I had every ground for satis-
faction with my choice; but Z's adventures must be
told in another chapter."



The following exercise is again a study in contrasts,
but in this case there are more than tTvo.

You will have seen from the last exercise that the
way to make your precis clear is to arrange all the
topics in separate paragraphs.

We may put it in the form of a Rule:

Rule IV. — After you have stated your main sub-
ject in the * title ', arrange all the different topics in
SEPARATE PARAGRAPHS; and whenever you
can, make the 'state of affairs' clear in your first

This rule applies to every precis you write. The
best plan is to jot down in pencil Headings for all
your paragraphs before you start writing your precis
(three in short precis; four, five, or six, in longer
precis). The length of each paragraph depends on
the importance of the topic.


No. 5.— The Black Republic

Extract from the reminiscences of Commander
Brown, R.N.

I have only once visited the Black Republic, and
that was some years ago, when I was still a midship-
man. I was in the Arg-o then, a curious old tub that
has long since been scrapped. We had been cruising
about the islands and enjoying ourselves hugely,
when the captain received orders to bring certain
pressure to bear upon the Black Republicans. I
don't know what the fuss was about; that didn't
concern me. What did interest me was the fact that
we — myself and four other "snotties" — were allowed
shore-leave for the afternoon.

A strange wild place the island looked as we ap-
proached it in the picket-boat: a huge tumbled mass
of bare mountain peaks, for all the world like a
crumpled newspaper thrown down on a blue carpet.
It was beautiful too in this glare of the tropical sun,
with its gleaming grey rocks and dark forest belt, and
the straggling lines of white houses that backed the

As we drew nearer we could see the yellow lateen
sails of little fruit-boats that crowded round the quay,
the green sun-blinds of houses, and the white dresses
and brilliant red and blue parasols of the ladies who
thronged the promenade — a regular kaleidoscope of
dazzling colour points. And we promised ourselves
a jolly afternoon of exploration and ramble.

But no sooner had we rounded the mole and entered
the harbour than the whole aspect changed. It is
difficult to convey a true impression of the extreme
shabbiness and tawdriness of the scene. It fell like a


blight upon us, and our spirits sank down into our
boots. The whole surface of the harbour was covered
with a scum of dirt and oil in which floated banana
skins, bits of orange-peel, matches, and dead flies,
while the quay was pervaded by an indescribable
stench, heavy and sweet, like an old dust-bin.

We came alongside and walked up the steps, slip-
ping on fishes' heads and fruit skins; and everywhere
we were met by the same dirty finery and pretentious
tawdriness. Crowds of ladies walked up and down
the parade — black ladies, dressed in dirty white frocks
and darned canvas shoes. Their brilliant parasols
were torn, and their hat-feathers dishevelled like those
of a scare-crow.

Innumerable soldiers — black men, of course —
thronged the streets, strutting with indescribable
self-satisfaction. But they were as shabby as the
"ladies", in their dirty cocked-hats, their concertina-
like trousers, and tunics stuck all over with medals
and orders like Christmas-trees. We discovered from
the Commander afterwards that the whole army con-
sists of ofiicers, very few of them below the rank of
Major-general. They are inordinately proud of their
medals, and quite amazingly inefficient.

It was really beastly — there is no other word to
describe it — so beastly that we snotties walked along
in silence, unable at first to realize how funny it all
was. Presently a huge black major-general, decked
with gold tinsel epaulets and as many orders as the
Lord High Executioner, came across to us and
saluted with magnificent gusto.

"What the deuce does the old buffer want?"
whispered Jones to me.

"Me speak Englees," said the major-general, and

pre:cis writing 25

"Well, out with it, old son; what do you want?"
asked Jones disrespectfully.

And then at last we saw the humour of the whole
ramshackle system; for what in the world should
this affected old turkey-cock of a major-general want,
but to carry the bag which contained our towels and
tea for the modest sum of half a crown ! We roared
with laughter; and at that moment our ist Lieutenant
came along.

"Get out! no want!" he said; and the disconcerted
major-general slunk away with the most humorous
expression of offended pride and grovelling servility.

" I shouldn't stay in the town," said the lieutenant;
"it stinks. If you carry on down the road, you w'H
come to a first-rate bathing-place."

And so we did.



A short paragraph of explanation is needed. The
different Hnes of investigation fit very easily into dif-
ferent paragraphs.



No. 6. — The Professor and the Monkeys

Translation of a letter written by Herr Professor
Otto von Pumpenstein to the Miinchen Philological


June I.

I regret that distance prohibits me from
attending the summer meeting of the Philological
Society in person; more especially as I have been
making certain investigations which, I venture to
think, will have far-reaching consequences. Allow
me to enclose the report of my experiments.

ihr ergebenst
Otto von Pumpenstein.


Report of certain experiments carried out in the
Monkey-house of the Hamburg Zoological Gardens.

The following experiments were made by me by
kind permission of the Herr Vorsteher of the Zoo-
logical Gardens, with the object of ascertaining
whether monkeys actually converse in language. I
was drawn to make these experiments by a consider-
ation of the extraordinary similarity between the
structure of the mouth and vocal chords in Man and
the Anthropoid Apes, and by the amazing correspon-
dence between their brain-charts. I accordingly had
a small travelling cage fitted up with table, ink-
stand, and so forth, and placed inside the large cage
of the chimpanzees, which happened to be next that


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