Language lessons from George Orwell

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” – George Orwell

If rock legend Bruce Dickinson ever tells you that you need more cowbell, then you should listen. Similarly, when George Orwell gives advice about language and writing, we should pay attention. In 1946, Orwell published an essay, Politics and the English Language, in which he both provides advice and proposes rules we should follow to become more effective communicators. This post explores the essay and Orwell’s guidance, which I believe remains applicable to a wide range of communications today.

A little bit of Googling tells me that this essay is required reading in many post-secondary writing programs, so many of you might have read it years ago and be wondering why I’m digging it up.  Well, I have no “classical training” in writing beyond that which I received in elementary and high school (writing in an engineering degree consists of project and lab reports), so I’m quite interested in this type of thing¹.

The Essay

I very much advise reading the essay in full (you can find it easily enough online in a few locations) if you’re especially interested in the topic, but for those of you in a hurry I’ll sum it up. Politics and the English Language includes a few messages:

  • Writing today (1946), and political writing in particular, is terrible
  • This terribleness (a) is a reflection of society’s gradual dumbing-down and (b) contributes to the further dumbing-down of society
  • Many people think language cannot be consciously changed/influenced; those people are wrong
  • While it’s easy to fall into common traps and be a terrible writer, it actually isn’t that hard to avoid those traps
  • Clear communication leads to clear thought, which leads to clear discourse, and so on through lots of good stuff²

Orwell begins by outlining his ideas. First, he makes it clear that he thinks the language of the time is faltering, and that general belief is that this degeneration represents an inexorable change: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it… Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”

Orwell believes the fall of language has serious implications on our ability to think critically: “(Language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language make it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Later, he reiterates this point: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”

He makes it clear, though, that we can do something about it: “The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly.”

He follows up this introduction with five passages to which he later refers to illustrate the problems he is seeking to address. When I read the passages, I basically went “Huh?” because they’re so convoluted and, well, hard to understand. Luckily, those are kind’ve Orwell’s points (in his words, these passages share two ‘qualities’, “The first is staleness of imagery; the second is lack of precision. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.”)

In the sections that immediately follow, Orwell describes a number of problems that are apparently rampant in 1947’s political communications:

  • Dying Metaphors: new metaphors that are relevant and recognizable to the reader are good because they aid in evoking a visual image; dead metaphors are OK because they’ve basically become ordinary words and people understand them; but dying ones are worn out and frequently used incorrectly (e.g., the hammer and the anvil), so they should be eradicated
  • Operators, or Verbal False Limbs: using repeatable phrases that add syllables and “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns”; for instance: render inoperative, having the effect of, exhibit a tendency to, in view of, etc.
  • Pretentious Diction: basically, Orwell means using big words, academic words, words from other languages, etc. to try to sound impressive (most likely, it’ll make you sound like a pompous jerk)
  • Meaningless Words: (maybe my favourite section) think of the last time you heard an art critic drone on and sprinkle words like “humanistic”, “plastic”, “romantic”, “living quality” and so on – this is an example of what Orwell is against. It’s kind’ve like the emperor’s new clothes: everyone who reads a critique knows at some level that the words mean nothing, but apparently everyone is afraid to point this out for fear of being labelled as someone who can’t appreciate art. Perhaps you’re offended by this? Well, read the example Orwell provides (an excerpt from poetry quarterly) and explain to me how it is anything other than nonsense.

What’s the point of this? Well, as Orwell states, “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.”

In the essay’s closing sections, Orwell proposes some ways to remedy the situation.

Four Questions, and Two More Questions³

Orwell tells us that “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus”; the questions being:

  • 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?

…then he adds “And he will probably ask himself two more:”

  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Why would people use deliberately ambiguous or unclear language? In Orwell’s opinion, a common cause (especially in political writing) is insincerity: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and ones declared aims, one turns…to long words and exhausted idioms.”

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” – George Orwell

The Rules

Orwell closes the essay by proposing six rules “that one can rely on when instinct fails”:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Sounds easy enough, right? Just keep things as simple as possible, and invent some vivid new metaphors, and your writing will be much clearer.

¹Similarly, despite my profession, I have no formal training in marketing, so I read all sorts of material on the subject.

²Obviously, there are significant similarities here with concepts explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly the language Newspeak. While this essay was published in 1946, the novel’s thesis was largely outlined in 1944 (although the book itself was written primarily in 1947 and 1948, to be published in 1949), so Nineteen Eighty-Four almost serves to illustrate the negative extreme influence of language.

³I might actually print these out and affix the above my desk.

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2 comments on “Language lessons from George Orwell
  1. […] solid pipeline (Michael shared several case studies to support this assertion). Metaphorically, and Orwell himself would be proud of this one, this approach is the difference between trying to drive in a nail with a nuke, or […]

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