Archive for September 18th, 2011

If I had to recommend a single work to would-be writers, then unquestionably that work would be George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” First published in 1946, the essay is dated now in its references, but no other work talks as clearly or succinctly about the purpose of writing, or gives such useful rules for accomplishing that purpose.

The larger context of “Politics” is the use of language in social situations. As Orwell had already suggested in works like Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm (and would later explore in detail in Nineteen Eighty-Four), the essay explores how language is used to manipulate people and conceal thoughts in “the defense of the indefensible.” However, Orwell’s tone throughout the essay makes clear that he thinks such use of language is corrupt and disgusting, and should be opposed by any writer worthy of the name. So far as Orwell is concerned, a writer’s job is to communicate clearly and effectively – both as a matter of self-respect and as a duty to the language and public discourse.

Aside from dishonest intent, the main reason for corrupt language according to Orwell is that most writers and speakers don’t stop to think what they mean. Instead, they riffle through an assortment of clichés, choosing ones that approximately fit their meaning. Orwell lists the general categories of these clichés – dying metaphors, verb phrases, pretentious diction, and meaningless words – and, although many of his examples are dated after sixty-five years,  no one with any interest in language should have any trouble coming up with modern equivalents.

Talking about the role of the writer and giving negative examples would be enough by themselves to make “Politics” worth reading. But then, at the end, Orwell does something extraordinary: he reduces how to write clearly to six simple rules:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In less than a hundred words, Orwell not only tells readers everything they need to know about writing clearly, but provides an example of  the type of writing he advocates. The result is a set of guidelines from which anyone can benefit. Considering the thousands of pages that people have written trying to explain how to write, this is an astonishing accomplishment.

One of the reasons why these rules are so useful is their flexibility. You’ll notice that Orwell does not say, for example, “Never use a long word when you can use a short one.” Such a rule would only be another type of pretentiousness, of a sort you sometimes find in Hemingway when he is parodying himself.

Instead, he says, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” For example, if you just want to convey a general impression of size, then “big” is probably good enough. However, if you want a suggestion of humor, then “humongous” would be more appropriate. Similarly, if want to imply something out of the ordinary range of bigness, then “outsized” might be a more effective choice.

The same goes for a several of his other rules. In general, Orwell suggests, you want to use the active voice – but only when you “can.” If you have a reason for using the passive voice (for instance, to suggest helplessness, you might want to write “A groan issued from his lips” rather than “he groaned”), then do so. In the same way, a foreign expression is only valid if there is no English equivalent; use a Latin or French phrase for any other reason, and you are probably trying to sound impressive when you should be thinking of what you want to say.  Then, just to emphasize the point, he ends by urging that you ignore any of these rules if they fail to aid the clarity of thought and expression that he assumes is a writer’s goal.

If practiced, what these rules do for you is to make you think exactly what you are trying to say. Unlike the rules that other writers propose, these are not suggestions that you can apply by rote. What they really are is a set of suggestions for how to keep your purpose actively engaged while you are writing.

What makes “Politics and the English Language” so unique – and such a necessity – is that, more than any other book or essay on writing I have ever seen, it cuts through the pretenses and the posturings and the assumptions about being a writer to articulate what writing is about and to offer concrete ways to achieve the purpose of writing.

Read (and re-read) “Politics,” and when its rules become a part of your normal writing and editing, and you will understand all you need to know about writing. After that, the rest will be practice.

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