“Politics and the English Language”

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell advises “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Perhaps Orwell didn’t go far enough; a total abstinence from metaphor might be more effective. Orwell recommended checking against the rule when one might be “in doubt” regarding the effect of a word or a phrase. Orwell offered six “rules” writers might consult when “instinct fails.” The rule regarding metaphor is the first; the second suggests “never use a long word where a short one will do.” But rule number three cuts even deeper: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Rule four is tricky, requiring grammar notes: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Don’t have grammar notes? Don’t worry; Orwell himself breaks the passive rule occasionally. Rule number five reminds us to stick to the English we know: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Finally, the clean up rule makes all the others serve a common goal: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Orwell refused to give up on either politics or the English language. He remained positive about both, and believed that improvements in the use of language would lead to improvements in politics: “…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 toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

2 thoughts on ““Politics and the English Language”

  1. Have windmills been replaced by cell towers oh noble Don Quixote? Is it nobler to rail against enemies imagined or against insurmountable odds? The internet has created a new English Language. This English has no rules and therefore the politics governing the new language must be redefined or created from scratch. In 50 years the language of the “global net” will have rendered all other language obsolete. Okay maybe 100 years (so I don’t have to be alive to see it).

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    • I love that cell towers as windmills. Orwell’s essay isn’t loved everywhere, by the way. He seems to trip over his own rules in places. But that’s a nit picky criticism, given the context I was using as an assumption here. Well, but the thing about rules is they are created by the users of the language, not the protectors (English teachers, in particular – who have sort of made some things up as they went along) of the language! This is the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive grammar. I’m sort of holding out in a hard copy bunker still. Not sure that’s healthy. I just like books. Books are acoustic, not electric. You dig?

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