- George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is as relevant now as it was in 1946.
- Redefining a dangerous word can steal its meaning.
- Ill-considered ideas may be hidden behind bad prose, even from the writer themselves.
- Attention to the clarity of every sentence ensures clarity of thought and of meaning.
So opened an essay in a 1946 issue of the magazine, Horizon. The words are as true today as they were then, which is why George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is still quoted as a seminal text on how to write clearly. While he focused his attacks on political language, it describes principles that apply equally to any sort of fictional or non-fictional writing. Politics and the English Language distils a course on clear and effective communication into a very short read, making it an object lesson as well as an instruction manual.
In an age when online newspapers churn out hastily typed columns by the minute and many of us spend time among the even hastier typing of social media, it’s harder than ever to avoid soaking up the habit of bad prose.
In fiction, soggy prose kills the pace of a passage and leaves the reader squinting at the page. Did what I think happened actually happen?, they ask themselves. It’s a short step from there to, can I be bothered to care what happened? Then they go away and read something else or worse, conclude that reading fiction is hard work and it’s easier to stick to theunvarnished reality of social media. When things get really bad, people start believing that’s what social media genuinely offers them.
The origin of Newspeak
Orwell may not have phrased it that way, but he believed in the link between language and social control, and revisited it many times in his fiction. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock earns a comfortable living inventing insecurities to sell cosmetics, and distilling them down to simple slogans. For anyone who thinks shifting product by putting our imperfections on posters is a recent phenomenon, Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in 1936.
At the time Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, he was developing the ideas behind 1984 in which control of language was one of the major themes. The Party aims to make eliminate subversive thoughts by removing the words that describe them from the language. The Newspeak of 1984 is the culmination of a process that Orwell was warning of, in which dangerous words can be robbed of their danger by robbing them of their meaning:In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
The word democracy is abused in exactly the same way today, though I see it attacked from the opposite angle as often as in the way Orwell describes. People very often state that a regime is undemocratic by using a narrow definition that specifically excludes the regime they object to. In fact, democracy encompasses many different systems that allow citizens a greater or lesser degree of influence on government. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as:
A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
Yet people frequently decry a system as undemocratic if the representatives do not make the decisions they would like, or if they cannot see a representative standing for election who they want to vote for. Those may be limitations inherent to democracy, but do not indicate a lack of democracy.To narrow the definition of democracy is to devalue the word as much as Orwell’s ‘defenders of every kind of régime’. Both misuses of the word distort the meaning of the word to the point where they risk robbing it of meaning altogether. If the word ‘democracy’ ceases to have meaning, so will the concept. We will be well on the way to the language of Newspeak and the regime of Big Brother.
The murder of meaning
Orwell lists some of the pitfalls that lead us to imprecise language, and how to avoid them. I won’t describe his dying metaphors, false verbal limbs, pretentious diction and meaningless words here as he does it so well in the essay. He argued for elegance as well as precision, and illustrated the point best with a verse from Ecclesiastes from the King James Bible:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.
He rewrote it using the poor prose he was arguing against:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failurein competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
If nothing else, it’s further proof that the creeping problems Orwell describes haven’t changed much in seventy years.
The defence of meaning
Orwell came up with a list of six rules that we can all use to avoid the traps he described:
(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 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 barbarous.
I’ve read whole books on writing style that said less than is in those six rules. Perhaps more important than any rule is his description of the scrupulous approach:A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Following this stricture is more difficult than simply throwing down the first thing that springs to mind and flinging it unedited into the world, and no one has time to ask all those questions of every emoji they post on Facebook. Unless we’re very lucky, it never becomes second nature and we’ll always have to review anything we’ve written with these questions in mind. The benefits of doing that make it well worth the effort:
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy…and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
Keeping things simple enables a non-fiction writer to spot flaws and inconsistencies in their own arguments and a fiction writer to spot flaws in their construction. By looking stupid to ourselves, we have the opportunity to correct ourselves before we look stupid to anyone else.
A struggle without end
For all the thousand dying metaphors and ten thousand meaningless words used in every minute of every day, the linguistic collapse that Orwell described in his opening paragraph has not yet happened. If it looks as imminent now as it did to him, it is an indication that the danger has been fended off for the last 70 years and that we can continue to fend it off.As long as there are writers and orators whose thinking is unclear or who deliberately hide their true meaning, the collapse will remain imminent. As long as there are writers and orators who apply Orwell’s principles, the collapse can be postponed if not prevented.
I for one would like to be one of the stavers rather than one of the topplers, though I’ll leave it to you to judge how successfully I’m fighting my corner.
Have you seen a particularly egregious use of a dying metaphor, false verbal limb, pretentious diction or meaningless word recently? With political campaigns ongoing in both the USA and UK, there are plenty of opportunities for lazy English users to commit Orwell’s sins. If you’ve seen a good one, please share it in the comments.