Politics and the English Language

Last term everyone worked really hard on their writing.In class we discussed how ineffective language can weaken and distort ideas.This is something English writer George Orwell felt very strongly about and in his 1946 “Politics and the English Language” essay he  criticised “ugly and inaccurate” contemporary written English. Orwell said that political prose was formed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell believed that, because this writing was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless. This unclear prose was a “contagion” which had spread even to those who had no intent to hide the truth, and it concealed a writer’s thoughts from himself and others.

However, Orwell concludes the progress of bad writing is curable and suggests to the reader six rules he says will help them avoid most of the errors in the examples of poor writing he gave earlier in the article:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Other writers have provided support for these rules over the years. For instance look at rule 2 – Never use a long word where a short one will do.

You need to use long words carefully and with skill.You won’t sound intelligent unless you can. In fact it might backfire and you can come across as pretentious. It may mean that your readers do not clearly understand what you are trying to say. Your writing (and we have discussed this!) can be awkward to read.

The great American writer Ernest Hemingway was criticised by fellow writer William Faulkner for his limited word choice – “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway replied:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use”.


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