Thoughts on Language (Orwell)

Posted on November 13, 2006


Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

While I am perhaps more sympathetic than Orwell to the view that “any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like prefering candles to electric light”, I certainly endorse what he has to say about the benefits of clarity and economy of expression.

In recent years (in the UK, at least) there has been a resurgence of the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to grammar. This dictates that we should follow the rules of grammar as they have been laid down, and not deviate from them. While I support the notion that people should use punctuation and grammar more correctly and more concisely, this approach neglects two important considerations.

1.) The rules of grammar (as we have ingerited them) are historical accident. They simply happen to be the ‘rules’ that were in place when English was standardised during the 16th and 17th centuries.

2.) English does not have – and never has had – a body to govern its correct usage. French has the Académie Française to mind their language, while Spaniards have the Real Academia Española. The idea that there is some sort of ‘core’ to English that we need to preserve is mistaken. This can be demonstrated etymologically. It is difficult to accept that standard English has some sort of rational basis worth preserving either: it is less uniform than most other European languages (largely because it is a composite). The notion of standard English – typically described as the kind of English that an educated person would use – is a complete nonsense and reinforces the pernicious normative ideal of class. It has to be recognised that language is organic and evolving to fit our needs. This is a continual process, common to all languages and linguistic communities. Recognising this does not exclude the possibility that some forms of expression are inherently better than others.  However, any clarity we can bring to this idea is likely to take a negative character.

Orwell provides a good list of faults of expression: he has political language in mind, primarily.

Staleness of Imagery – Evoking metaphors or similies which do not have the intended effect because they have either lost their evocative potential from over-use and become part of everyday language, failed to adequately express their intended object, or become mixed and confused.

Verbal False Limbs – Using a phrase where a single verb would do, e.g. “greatly to be desired” rather than “desirable”.

Pretentious Diction – Unecessary neologism and trumpeting of one’s own vocabulary. The worst excesses of German philosophy might be prone to this.

Meaningless Words – Orwell’s particular target is aesthetic criticism. The worst excesses of French philosophy might fall under this category.

For the “scrupulous” writer, Orwell suggests the following guidelines: unfortunately, the last of them is somewhat subjective.

i.) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech if you can avoid it.

ii.) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii.) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv.) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v.) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi.) Break any of these rules rather than say something outright barbarous.

Orwell makes a rather interesting remark towards the end of the piece. In summarising his thoughts, he says that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”. This suggests an interesting parallel with Habermas’s validity claim to “truthfulness”. Whether Orwell’s suggested reforms of language are deigned to make communication more rational seems a moot point; in fact he seems most intent on making political discourse more rational.

James Miller’s interesting discussion of Orwell and Adorno