Essays On Politics And The English Language

You may find creative ways to break these rules without thereby being obscure or justifying mass murder.

But Orwell does preface his guidelines with some very sound advice: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

Those who care about clarity of thought and responsible use of rhetoric would do well to consult them often, and to read, or re-read, Orwell’s essay.

“I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you,” Apeneck Sweeney tells his girlfriend Doris as he tries to explain how it is that “death is life and life is death.” Though he dwells near the bottom of the cultural food chain, T. Eliot’s protagonist nonetheless identifies a problem that has high-brow implications, and the 20th-century jitters, written all over it.

Orwell’s analysis identifies several culprits that obscure meaning and lead to whole paragraphs of bombastic, empty prose: : these are the wordy, awkward constructions in place of a single, simple word.

Some examples he gives include “exhibit a tendency to,” “serve the purpose of,” "play a leading part in,” “have the effect of.” (One particular peeve of mine when I taught English composition was the phrase “due to the fact that” for the far simpler “because.”) : Orwell identifies a number of words he says “are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” He also includes in this category “jargon peculiar to Marxist writing” (“petty bourgeois,” “lackey,” “flunkey,” “hyena”).

If it is true, as Eugene Genovese once observed, that all political movements include idealists, careerists, and thugs, it is equally true that it is the “thugs”—that is, the propagandists, professional obscurantists, and spin-doctors—who do most of the writing.

Looking back at Orwell’s essay from the vantage point of a half century, one quickly realizes how it is possible to be simultaneously prescient and short-sighted, for Orwell could feel the intimations that would lead to our current conviction that “everything is political” without being able to fully imagine the pretentiousness and tin-eared jargon that such reductiveness would unleash.

(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.


Comments Essays On Politics And The English Language

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