For this week's online essay, let's extend our range a bit: Politics and the English Language, a classic essay by George Orwell. He was an enemy of bad politics and bad language, and felt they ran together. In terms of its relation to language, we can consider religion a subset of politics, I think. You can see where I'm heading, but I'll let Orwell do the talking.
The biggest problems with the written English of his day (and it has only gotten worse) were staleness of imagery and lack of precision. He decried dying metaphors, verbal clutter, pretentious diction, bureaucratic jargon, and meaningless words. He summarizes:
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 colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.
So, where could we possibly find a few rebels intent on expressing private opinions rather than the party line? If Orwell's diagnosis was that politics corrupts language, his prescription was that better language supports clearer thinking and, over time, better politics. Not to leave us without hope, Orwell provides a few rules to help us move in the general direction of better writing. It's a fine, short list:
- 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.