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“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”

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How can one attempt to reduce a revolutionary 6000 word masterpiece of literary precision without diminishing the essence of its meaning? Here’s my attempted edited version of George Orwell’s masterpiece entitled ‘Politics and the English language.’ After reading you’ll start to realise like I did, why it’s hard to make sense of anything in our time. Ironically simplicity is one of the hardest things to teach, yet Orwell manages to do so with uncanny consistency.

Certainly there is no success in writing effectively unless one writes with simplicity. Orwell counsels to make sense and meaning to what is being said and then formulate the prose, he says to feel or picture the thought before applying its literal definition. Every word spoken can be trapped. Words are just as imitable as identity and can be twisted by those savvy enough to do so. Nonetheless it is clear that propagandas have the power to adapt and marginalise in ways that have undoubtedly surpassed Orwell’s wildest imagination. Yet we as individuals have the power to make a difference through exposing the content of our imaginations with sincerity. Here goes…

Politics and the English language- George Orwell

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. 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, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases— the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. He may be almost unconscious of what he is saying. And this reduced state of consciousness is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

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? In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. 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. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

 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, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases— the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. He may be almost unconscious of what he is saying. And this reduced state of consciousness is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. The defense of the English language has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech. It is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outgrown its usefulness. 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. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

– 

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

The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.

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

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, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit.

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

Long words do not make you sound intelligent unless used skilfully. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.

– Never use the passive where you can use the active.

People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. The writer either has a meaning or cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. 

– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.Many of these terms are used without knowledge of their meaning. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

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

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. Language is an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits.

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Written by Magda M Ali

February 5, 2008 at 1:18 am

Posted in Features

6 Responses

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  1. I might as well delete my blog after reading that. It’s full of jargon and bad habits, the tips are good but actually very hard to maintain! It’s not as though you wanna write in jargon, it’s a habit, a norm… I think that it’s impossible to sensor words, writing in jargon sometimes illustrates the opposite, it illustrates that one does not think about what they are writing but writes directly from within… and that my friend is sincerity!

    Mark

    February 6, 2008 at 9:20 pm

  2. So all in all, what i’m trying to say is that jargon and bad habits are what makes anothers’ style unique and inimitable… thus perhaps i ought to keep my blog right where it is 😀

    Mark.

    Mark

    February 6, 2008 at 9:22 pm

  3. interesting! Ps Mark i agree. And yes do keep your blog right where it is because i enjoy the read.

    Mel

    February 8, 2008 at 5:04 pm

  4. Salutations and peace all,

    I thought I had replied but just realised that I haven’t, I apologise. I’ve been extremely busy with university and the work load. But seriously Mark, some very good points and to an extent I agree with you. But I think that what George Orwell is trying to get at is that “the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” And in essence that’s it, once must make sense and meaning to what is being said before applying its literal definition. Thus bad habits in jargon are formulated through imitation and insincerity!

    Well that’s what I’ve taken from that piece. Mark I’d really recommend reading the unedited version of Orwell’s piece. Perhaps I’ve diminished it through intense editing, I’m sure that you’d thoroughly enjoy the piece.

    Mel: Perhaps you could give us some food for a thought… would love to hear your thoughts.

    Magda.

    Magdamali

    February 18, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  5. Funny that i prefer your edited version. It’s simple and breaks it down. Ps i do understand “the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” but as i’ve said it’s easier said than done, how does one know whether he’s surrendering to words or not?

    Mark.

    Mark

    February 19, 2008 at 11:40 am

  6. I think that Orwell was just trying to give us a few guidelines, and the sarcasm kicks in at the end when he says “break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

    Just keep in mind the guidelines are intended to make you think. Just take the guidelines as they are and don’t think too much of it. Orwell acknowledged in his essay that we’re only human and there’s no such thing as perfect writing, as he has admits to breaking the very rules that he’s protesting against.

    Magda.

    magdamali

    February 20, 2008 at 1:02 pm


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