This is a great essay about writing by George Orwell. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never read it before this week.
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. 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, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. 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: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad—I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen—but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:
“I am not, indeed, sure, whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien[sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.”—Professor Harold Laski (essay in Freedom of Expression)
“Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.”—Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)
“On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?”—Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)
“All the ‘best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.”—Communist pamphlet.
“If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak cancer and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as `standard English.’ When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!”—Letter in Tribune
Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase.
Operators, or Verbal False Limbs
These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formation, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved from anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
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. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet Press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Here it is in modern English:
“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels 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. Exhibit (3), above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations—race, battle, bread—dissolve into the vague phrase “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing—no one capable of using phrases like “objective consideration of contemporary phenomena”—would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
As I have tried to show, 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—to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry—when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech—it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. 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. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash—as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot—it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty-three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip alien for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means. (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. 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. 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? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.
Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. 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. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. 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. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber 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. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. 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. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.
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. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. 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. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence that I see: “The Allies have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a cooperative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write—feels, presumably, that he has something new to say—and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.
I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.
To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outgrown its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style.” On the other hand it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. 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. 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. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. 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 or sensations. Afterwards one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch around and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. 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.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where 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.
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. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but 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. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—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, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs.
George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language,” first published: Horizon, GB, London. April 1946.
Many more writing tips and tricks.
Love the bit about if it is possible to cut a word, then cut it out. Wish more writers of blogs, business proposals, e-mails would do the same.
Loved: If possible to cut a word, cut it. Wish everyone would do the same.
Interesting, I hadn’t seen that one before. Thanks for the read. Where’d you get it from?
Read about it in a book called Words That Work. Did a search for “Politics and the English Language,” and it’s all over the place.
Interesting pre-echoes of what I was trying to prove by starting the minifesto meme.
It gets funnier every time I read it. Thanks.
A classic; as if it were written yesterday.
This used to be required reading for political science majors (“back in the day,” he croaked). My wife, who teaches high school English, makes her senior honors students read it.
The translation of King Solomon’s words from the Book of Ecclesiastes into “modern” English, for me, is the the heart of the essay and cuts to the very core of what is wrong with most business writing today — from academic journals to mundane internal memos.
In fact, it has taught me a great filter for evaluating people I encounter in professional (and personal) life — muddy language = muddy thinking.
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” The K.I.S.S. theory never gets old.
On a side note, Guy any thoughts on the trade of Ryan Smyth yesterday to the NY Islanders? As a long time Oilers fan, I’m still in shock.
As long as he didn’t go to the Ducks, I’m happy.
So Guy is getting Orwellian. Should we start to worry?
I was going to send you a pre-release copy of my book today but now I have to go edit it one more time!
Great post. Thanks,
One of my law school profs at UCLA, David Mellinkoff, argued for plain legal writing. The problem I found with that approach was that judges often mistake obscurity for profundity.
Prof. Sowell, also at UCLA used to say, in his history of Economic theory class, that if you couldn’t understand what a writer was saying it was probably because the author did not understand his subject well enough to explain it. I think he may have been referring to Marx whose book became one of the most influential of all time despite being complete gibberish.
I recall reading a post at The Corner recently where a Doctoral candidate at a major university English department related something to the effect that his dissertation was rejected specifically because the language was too simple and plain.
The moral of these stories seems to be that obscurity of speech can often be quite effective. Just ask all those guys who invested in internet stocks they didn’t really understand.
It’s ironic that people use the term “Orwellian” to mean exactly the opposite of what Orwell advocated. For more on Orwell’s writing tips over at Gruntled Employees, check out “Orwellian lawyers” and “More Orwellian rules on writing.”
Keep changing the world, Guy! I’m a raving fan. — Jay
An excellent post – every word is useful! I first came across Orwell’s ‘6 rules’ in The Economist Style Guide.
Great piece! As an educator in both the K – 12 and higher education system, I see the relevance of the article to the work at schools, and the challenges faced in the development of academic language in our students.
Thanks for the reprint, Guy.
Excellent advice. Thanks for bringing it up and posting the full essay. The entire essay can be distilled into the 6 rules towards the end of the post.
Follow up to earlier comment: I messed up the link to the second Gruntled Employees article. It should have been this: More Orwellian rules on writing. Sorry about that.
Also, I didn’t want anyone to think I was taking Roger Anderson’s comment to task. He was being ironic in calling Guy Orwellian. My only point was that many people describe as “Orwellian” the kind of language that Orwell despised.
he realy was one of the last “utopisten”.
regards from germany
That the English language is in a bad way has been a cause for lament through the ages, and continues to be good fodder for several linguistics blogs. See this one, for instance:
To paraphrase another great man of literature (Twain), “The reports of the language’s ill-health/ death are greatly exaggerated”.
I first read Orwell’s six rule in a journalism course I took. Many years later I became a writer and speaker on innovative thinking. I remember Orwell every time I read something like “paradigm shifting strategic initiative” when the writer was actually talking about a new idea.
The world of innovation and creativity is full of meaningless writing that sells books but it does not inspire insight.
Orwell clearly never had to write a social science PhD.
Where else would you get this remark on your Philosophy and Methods exam paper: “You understand concepts clearly, but your language is rather quotidian, not academic. That requires improvement.”
To me, that is an official exhortation to break Orwell’s rule #5.
And once people with such PhD degrees get out, they have been speaking this obscure version of the English language so long that verbiage instead of words continue to spew forth.
language is not in a “bad way”; it is so much complex compared to archaïc or medieval language! We cannot say language is evolving in a bad way, simply beacause there isn’t bad or good way… Read again french entitled “Par delà Bien et Mal”, Friedrich Nietszche, major philosophical essay over “manicheisme” and value judgment, 19th century
I’ve disagreed with this exact essay before and I will again.
There is an onus on both the writer and the reader, not merely the writer. If the reader is incapable of discerning the mad ramblings of a pompous and superfluous ranter from the wisdom and nuance embedded in a sage’s discourse, then that is not a failure on the writer’s part: it is a failure to comprehend what is being written.
The writer’s duty is to be understood, certainly, but catering to the lowest common denominator is not how you do it. People should learn how to read: good writing will follow naturally.
I was out walking the other day when I realised I lived down the road from Orwell’s old house.
kinda a thrill for an Aussie in London
Your piece reminded me of The Economist’s Style Guide. Well worth a read on a reasonably regular basis to stay clear.
Sheesh, Orwell could’ve saved us all a lot of time. Let’s just condense it, and we can help him save the English language:
Be concise. Be authentic. Be original.
About 6 months after I started blogging I found this essay and it tightened my writing considerably.
I shared it with a friend and his only comment was “he needs to practice what he preaches.”
Our viewpoints remind me of this exchange between 2 writers we can all learn from:
Thanks, Guy. I only hope Orwell isn’t capable of perceiving now-modern “English”; b.s. has only worsened!
The essay provoked two other thoughts. To focus on what one wants to say, it is necessary to have the space in which to reflect. Most people I know have less space than ever and may not realize the cost to their originality. Today, people face a barrage of media explosure, which results in less space than ever. I do not intend this as an excuse, but when we increasingly have access to everything, boasting to have “original” thought, and language, is quite a claim.
Related to this, 1946 was the height of the Industrial Economy in which companies created value through efficiency of production and operations. Originality was of secondary importance to efficiency.
I firmly believe that, in the emerging Knowledge Economy, a new level of innovation will be required to deliver value, and this will put originality in the spotlight again. This will probably be reflected in our language.
The political thread was exquisite. It is difficult to write clearly when lying. Lies are one way to deal with a lack of courage, and most people play along by not holding their leaders to account (reader and writer, as the Michael Chui said). If you don’t say anything, you can’t be contradicted, and this can go to the limit. One of my favorites was Clinton’s “It depends on what *is* is.” Something like that.
Blimey Mr Kawasaki…
Orwell makes excellent points but they are buried in dated early 20th Century prose.
I think quoting so extensively is lazy and lets your otherwise excellent blog down.
It might have been fun might to convert it a PowerPoint in your own 10,20,30 form.
In one of my own posts I talk about ‘bloggeral’ – which may or may not have been original. Sometimes I am guilty of it too, in a way I think it is the nature of blogging. I’m reading Naked Conversations : How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers at the moment and recommend it to other bloggers. It reminds us that we’re not writing for The Economist(even if our audiences are just as – shall we say – ‘select’)
And we wander why people are playing buzzword (!) bingo in the meetings.
On Feb. 28, the same day that Mr. Kawasaki posted Orwell’s essay, I posted an article I titled “A Two Minute Grammar Lesson.” It must have been Official Writing Skills Day, and nobody told us!
I should have said, or someone should have caught the Orwell/Macintosh/Kawasaki connection goes back at least to 1984. I mean the year and the book. Wasn’t there a Super Bowl commercial that is still shown almost every year that had something to do with Orwell?
Once again, I found the irony too much to contain my hesitation to respond more than once.
Politics And The English Language
Marketing guru Guy Kawasaki is embarrassed for only having recently read George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.No apologies needed, Guy. You’ve done a service by pointing illiterates like The Agitator’s editors to Orwell’s timel
@ Michael Chui
Do you think Orwell catered to the lowest common demoniator in his essay? He is not instructing you to dumb down your writing and use 3rd grade vocabulary. If that is what you take away from the essay, you might want to re-read it. Some of the most intelligent and effective people I know speak and write in line with Orwell’s rules. Just look at Steve Jobs and his keynote presentations. They are simple, easy to comprehend and very effective. Why force your audience to sift through meaningless fluff when you can say exactly what you mean? If people can spend less time interpreting your writing, they can spend more time and energy acting on or responding to it. Is that not desirable?
Which e-mail would you rather get from a subordinate?
As the result of myriad exogenous complications and unforseen obstacles transpiring over the past two weeks, the latest release of our Widget was accompanied with several seemingly imperceptible abnormalities that will not necessarily hamper product adoption in a material way but could potentially create a need for future capital expenditures in order to rectify the situation. Can we circle back later today if your radar is clear and discuss next steps? I am out of pocket tomorrow and won’t have the bandwidth later this week.
I overlooked a bug in our latest Widget release that could hurt sales. Can we meet at 2PM in your office to work on a solution? I am with clients tomorrow and extremely busy later this week.
Number 1 is more difficult to comprehend, but what’s the point?
Great post, Guy. I am glad I finally got around to reading it.
My oh my, I just found out about George Orwell last Sunday. Better late than never.
I found many interesting things from his essays: http://www.jenniesbev.com/2007/03/05/why-i-write-by-george-orwell/
He was right on “why I write.” He was a blatant man living in his own “small world filled with idealistic notions on how the world should have been.” I cannot agree more, as a person and a writer.
~ Jennie S. Bev
Add one more word to the list of meaningless words >- TERRORIST.
Love your blog but only now felt the urge to comment … to recommend a book I’m sure you’ll enjoy. It’s interesting, funny, enlightening and entertaining:
“The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” by Bill Bryson.
I’m 3/4 of the way through it now … and will NEVER think about our language the same way again. Interestingly, it also makes a solid case for English as a major growth market!
Politics and the English Language
Not by me! Howarrogant would that be? By George Orwell – posted by Guy Kawasaki What an amazing essay by such a great author. It made me think back to How technical writing sucks over at Nadeem’s blog and my…
If you like Orwell’s essay, you’ll like this book; “The elements of style”. It’s an old classic, but still in print. Check i out here: http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/dp/020530902X/ref=pd_bbs_2/104-0774805-2152741?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173424741&sr=1-2
Hi Guy – am late on this one – needed to set some time aside to read this essay. Great post, and I can see how Mr. Orwell has influenced your own style.
The writer in me agrees with his 6 rules, and in our age of bloggers being everywhere, I’d add one more: to write effectively, use proper grammar. I may be old school, and have too much respect for the language, but without the benefit of an editor, bloggers often undermine their message – which is often worth sharing – with poor grammar and sloppy writing. It’s hard take someone’s writing seriously if they can’t get the basics right.
Finally, I just wanted to add that I found it quite ironic that the essay itself is in stark contrast to the 6 rules. It’s erudite, for sure, but dense and long-winded. Is it just me? If he was writing this today, I doubt his 6 rules wouldn’t change, but I suspect the essay itself would be a lot shorter.
Great article . . . I’ve been reading your blog off and on for about a year, and you’re continually coming up with new and interesting material. Keep up the good work!
Manche Tiere sind gleicher
Also, wenn mich etwas wirklich langweilt, dann sind das Kongresse und Konferenzen.
Unendliches Gebrabbel, Protokolle, jede Menge Sesselpupser.
Ich bin da ja mehr fürs Ausprobieren und einfach mal Machen.
Aber seis drum, hier mag das anders sein: Wer
The posting reminds me of a nice quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
This goes right along with rule #2, right? I think there are many interesting metaphors used in the english language which violate rule #1 – did someone say “freedom fries”…?
You get some doubleplus rating for this posting from me. :-)
I am with you guy, that is probably the best advice for any writer… and possibly one of the hardest bits of advice to follow.