All aspiring writers can learn from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” on writing good English as opposed to bad. Written in 1945 it remains an essay that is very much up-to date. Although the title suggests a political aspect to the discussion this is limited and does not affect the essay’s relevance. It continues to offer good advice on how to avoid bad writing.
Orwell’s starting point is the state of the language, English in general. Many bemoaned its state and thought the language was in decline .
Orwell agrees with the charge but he denies the language is beyond rescue:
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 civilisation is decadent, and our language -so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse. …… Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we can shape for our purposes.
Perhaps we hear less these days about the state of the language in general but we certainly tend, I think, to the idea there is not much we can do about it anyway. There is plenty of protest about individual uses of bad practice,
( For instance I get irked by the generality of the use of “Awesome” for what arouses admiration but certainly not awe, the tendency to introduce unnecessay prepositions -why do we need to say ” Let’s meet up for a coffee !” when meaning “Let’s meet for a coffee”; the tendency to answer questions as if they have not been asked, beginning “So…”)
but we, perhaps more than in Orwell’s time think it rather democratic to see language as a natural growth so there is not much you can do about and should not indeed wish to. It might be called a populist view of language use. (There are also some activist groups in opposition who see language as inherently biassed against their position and needs to be changed: hence the recent debate on personal pronouns. But that I shall leave for another day.)
But to get back to Orwell: he has some very pointed challenges to a just-let-be attitude:
The language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
( Those of you who have any experience of social media debates will see justice in this in this on our present -day English.).
The point is 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 more 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.
Orwell then takes some contemporary examples of English prose which are badly expressed and discusses the main weaknesses. These include the use of:
dying metaphors ie. one-time metaphors repeated so often they have lost freshness(eg toe the line, ride roughshod over,stand shoulder to shoulder, grist to the mill,no axe to grind)
Phrasal verbs or verbal false limbs –these are often unnecessary verb extensions eg,render inoperative, prove unacceptable,be subjected to, give rise to,take effect. Phrases like this often take the place of a single simple verb.
Pretensious diction.The choice of vocabulary that is meant to sound impressive: expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine.
Meaningless words. Such will depend on the subject but in-group jargon words might be an example or specialised vocabulary not adequately explained.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are use to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short word would 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 every day English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
By following such rules Orwell does not claim you will become a good writer but you should become a clearer one. So when drafting your next blog remember his six rules.
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them.
(Let me know, dear reader, of any laguage use you cannot abide. Also I am very aware writing on this subject I put my own writing up for inspection. Let me know with this- or any other blog post- if you find the prose is not as good as it ought to be. When it comes to writing we are all learners, as T.S. Eliot once memorably said:
So here am I, in the middle way, having had twenty years- Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres- Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt Is a wholly new start T.S.Eliot East Coker Four Quartets )