George Orwell's Politics and the English Language: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:00 Politics and the…
  • 0:32 Clear Language Matters
  • 1:22 Examples of Unclear Language
  • 2:30 Political Writing is…
  • 3:56 Six Rules for Better Writing
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Donald Kinney

Donald has taught English literature and history from middle school to college level.

George Orwell's widely read essay 'Politics and the English Language' links the decline of the English language to the degradation of the political process. This lesson explores Orwell's arguments and his time-tested advice to writers on how to improve their writing.

Politics and the English Language

Published in 1946 in the journal, Horizon, George Orwell's seminal essay, Politics and the English Language, describes how lazy and imprecise phrases, stale images and jargon have diminished modern English prose. According to Orwell, this trend in language undermines the political process and allows governments to repress citizens and cloak violent or illegal acts in pleasant and agreeable words and phrases.

Clear Language Matters

Orwell stresses the need to fight against imprecise and unclear language. He offers an analogy: a man might get drunk because he thinks of himself as a failure. Then, because he is drunk, he fails even more. Orwell argues that the same thing happens to the English language and the intellects of those who speak it. The language becomes ugly and inaccurate because the thoughts of English speakers are similarly inaccurate and unclear. Once the language is muddied, it becomes easier for English speakers to have even more unclear thoughts. This vicious circle eats away at the political process and the ability of citizens to clearly understand and participate in it. A major argument of the essay is that correcting bad habits in language is the first step toward fixing the political process.

Examples of Unclear Language

Orwell cites five examples that demonstrate the problems with unclear and imprecise language. Common to all of these examples are staleness of imagery and lack of precision, but Orwell goes on to identify each example's unique failing.

The first excerpt is an essay by Harold Laski and is exemplary of double negatives. The next, by linguist Lancelot Hogben, suffers from mixed metaphors. This is when two common metaphors are used back-to-back so that neither makes sense. In this example, Hogben makes his point with three metaphors by saying that one cannot play ducks and drakes with a battery which can prescribe things. The third, an essay on psychology, uses so much jargon that it is nearly impossible to understand. The fourth, a communist propaganda pamphlet, uses platitudes, or stale phrases that have lost their meaning. The final excerpt is a letter to the editor published in Tribune, which Orwell asserts uses so many emotionally charged phrases that the language of the letter and its intended meaning have almost parted company.

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