On “Politics and the English Language”

The-great-enemy-of-clear

George Orwell wrote his essay, “Politics and the English Language” nearly 70 years ago. And while our political jargon has changed, he offered some still applicable advice for crafting clear language.

His point was that political chaos and the decay of language are linked. But I consider the essay essential reading for anyone who communicates ideas through writing and speech. This probably applies to almost everyone.

He also populated the essay with metaphors that animate his writing and that teach the reader how to use metaphor effectively.

The sickness

Orwell opened his essay with five examples of bad writing. They shared two things in common–staleness of imagery and a lack of precision.

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.”

This lack of clarity and precision are problematic because they lack concreteness. He described “some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases–bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny” and others. This dummy’s eyes turn into “blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.”

This description reminds me of the soundbites that bombard us during the height of each election cycle. But no orator or writer is immune to reaching for canned expressions when he lacks clear or bold thought.

The challenge is to be aware of corrupted language when we see it or are tempted to use it.

The cure

Orwell left us some advice for combatting stale and muddy language. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.”

He also detailed questions the scrupulous writer will ask of each sentence. I’m constantly checking my writing against the first question. And like Orwell, though I sin against clarity and precision often, I comb repeatedly through my work to see what needs to be cut.

The questions of a scrupulous writer are–

What am I trying to say?

What words will express it?

What image or idiom will make it clearer?

Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Could I put it more shortly?

Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

He closed by prescribing a set of rules for the writer or orator to rely on when instinct fails.

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 

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