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.
Political Writing Is Bad Writing
Moving from a purely linguistic critique, Orwell begins to structure his argument for the interconnectedness of language and politics. Stating that political writing is bad writing, he explains that political orthodoxy seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style and that one never finds a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech in political discourse. This is because the language of politics is engaged in maintaining orthodoxy and defending actions on the part of governments, which are often indefensible. Euphemisms are more mild words substituted for other words that are considered to be too harsh. Orwell asserts that these are commonplace in political speech. He offers some examples: the destruction of villages is called 'pacification', the forced eviction of peasants is 'transfer of population', and the unlawful imprisonment and execution of political dissidents is 'elimination of unreliable elements'. In short, Orwell asserts that when the real goals of a political body differ from the stated goals of the party, language is used to mask the difference and mislead the populace. An important feature of Orwell's argument is that, once this soft, hazy language is adopted by the population, the ability to fully comprehend the actions of governments is lessened, and through this process the population can be tricked and resistance suppressed.
Six Rules for Better Writing
Orwell offers six rules to help improve the clarity of writing, and by extension, to reverse the negative effects unclear language have on the political process. These are:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice where you can use the active voice.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Politics and the English Language is an important essay that argues against lazy language and overused phrases. Orwell expands that argument to embody the trouble he saw in the political process. With imprecise language comes the ability of governments to hoodwink their populations and perpetuate political malfeasance, repression, and violence. On one level, the essay is a useful tool for students of writing that offers practical tips and tricks for avoiding unclear language and improving writing skills. On another level, it illustrates the ways in which language can be used to obfuscate the truth and hide the actions of governments from their citizens. The six tips for better writing are not only given to improve the clarity of language, but to begin the recovery and repair of a broken political process. These tips are: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out; never use the passive voice where you can use the active voice; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and, finally, break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
As you come to the end of the lesson, you should find it easier to:
- Discuss the premise of George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language
- Explain how he stresses that clear language matters
- List five examples of unclear language
- Recall why Orwell says that political writing is bad writing
- List Orwell's six rules for better writing