Saturday, October 06, 2007

"Politics and the English Language:" a Must for Writers

I’ve been reading a lot of writing about writing lately. Peter at slow reads, Lisa at eudaemonia, and Charles at razored zen have written some very helpful posts. Because I've been thiking about writing, I’ve been thinking about George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” I wrote the following almost two years ago, but for some reason I never transferred it to my blog. Sadly, we’re still using such euphemisms as “extraordinary rendition.”

If we remember George Orwell at all today, it’s for his dystopian novel 1984 and the fable Animal Farm. Perhaps some of us have read Homage to Catalonia, the recounting of his days as a Loyalist soldier in the Spanish Civil War, in which he finds that Stalinism and Fascism are, in human terms, the same. Or Down and Out in Paris and London, where he writes of his days working in Paris restaurants and living in the workhouses of England. But there’s one Orwell work that every writer should read and reread regularly: the essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

I recently tried to find it at the Bloomington Public Library. Shooting an Elephant, the collection of essays in which it appears, was not in the catalogue, but I had hopes it might be in another collection. So I went to the reference librarian who mentioned that someone else had been looking for the essay. It was in the public domain and available on the Internet. She found a site, and printed a copy for me.

Orwell quotes a passage from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

He then renders it into modern English: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in 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.”

“This is a parody, but not a very gross one,” he wrote in 1946. Today, it’s hardly a parody at all. Compared to much of what comes out of government and business, it’s remarkably clear writing.

“In our time,” writes Orwell, “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. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification… People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labor camps. This is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

In other words, the “Newspeak” of 1984 was not much different from the political speech of 1946. Today we’re hearing the same kind of language in defense of torture. The Wall Street Journal, in its November 12, 2005 editorial opposing Senator McCain’s anti-torture amendment, refers to such practices as “waterboarding” (itself a euphemism for a making the subject believe he is drowning) as “aggressive interrogation.” Kidnapping a suspect and sending him to a country where he can be tortured without any constraints is called “extraordinary rendition.”

But Orwell does not just comment on political language, but also implores all of us writers to be more clear and precise in our language. Orwell has six rules for the writer, which are as valid today as they were in 1946:

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

Never use a long word when a short word will do.

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

Never use the passive when you can use the active.

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 rather than say anything outright barbarous.

“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.” The same can be said for my own writing in this blog. That’s one reason I try to reread Orwell’s essay at least every year.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good words from Orwell. I've read this essay at some time or another, although I don't know what collection or where I found it. I'm glad to know I can find it online. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting.

Chris said...

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Love Orwell, and this essay is wonderful, but two thirds of the above-quoted rule is no longer valid in American writing. Clarity is important, but so is precision, and if one is to write about anything other than the received wisdom, and if one is to do so without dreadful dull repetition or watering down of the intent, everyday American English is often insufficient.

I suppose it depends on what one intends by "equivalent."

Further, there is often a music in the scientific terminology that is lacking in the common language.

As long as the language is defined, and not used to obscure, I think using the appropiate terminology grants the possibility that the reader is capable of understanding.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Really interesting post, although I am not entirely in agreement with Orwell's six rules. Nonetheless, they have given me much thought. Thanks.

steve said...

Charles-Thanks for visiting my blog. Orwell's essay used to be in many college rhetoric textbooks, but I suspect it's considered too dated now.

Chris--"I suppose it depends on what one intends by 'equivalent.'" There's the rub. Sometimes foreign phrases (is there an everyday English equivalent for Schadenfreude?), scientific words, and jargon are necessary for precision, and Orwell admits this. But writers, especially political writers, often use such words to distort (extraordinary rendition), or just to sound important (transition as a verb).

Orwell, like Hemingway, worked as a journalist, and I think their journalistic style of short, powerful words and the active voice made their writing much more readable than, say, writers in the Henry James tradition. (Bierce once wrote that James needed an English translation.)

Your comments are thoughtful, and aren't necessarily at odds with Orwell. Thank you for commenting.

Stewart--Thank you for your comments. I took a quick look at your blog, and I'm intrigued. I'll visit there again soon.

Lisa said...

I've printed this article out and intend to revisit it often. I've had the same observations about euphemisms used in politics, but hadn't fully closed the loop between those nagging thoughts and my own writing. In the course of attempting to read some older, classic literature I've done so with highlighter in hand in order to find interpretations to many of the foreign terms that were once so popular in literary fiction. It will be interesting to project Orwell's list even further onto what's happening with the written language as a result of technology. My peeve, of course is the shorthand that every kid with a cell phone now knows and uses with frightening regularity. I'm sure this shorthand has crept into some published fiction and I can only hope that something will occur to preserve words in correct and complete forms as our youth is propelled faster and faster on the information superhighway.

Thanks so much for finding this sharing. Great post!

steve said...


I suspect some of the instant messaging expressions may make it into common usage. Most,though, are just shorthand, and have no advantage orally. It doesn't save any time to say the initials "lol" instead of "laugh out loud," and I haven't heard anybody say it like "loll." The World War II acronyms SNAFU and JANFU were not only sayable, but you could use the acronyms--most everyone knew what the F stood for--in print. The text message WTF can't be said as a word, and the phrase is less likely to be censored nowadays. So I don't think most of these shorthand terms will make it into the general vocabulary--at least, I hope not. In any case, they're less dangerous than the political euphemisms.

Thanks for your compliments. Without your own excellent post mentioning Vonnegut's rules for writers and Charles's Words of Power posts, this post would still be languishing in "My Documents."

SzélsőFa said...

What an excellent writer he was. I love 1984 and see it becoming true in nowadays's Hungary.
He was burdened with vision into the future I assume....

The rules?
Fantastic ones.
They should be used by every writer, regardless of the language they use.
I think I'll have to write about them, later on on my szelsofa blog.
Thanks for the info!