Dec 6, 2013

Essays in Digest: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

“Politics and the English Language” is an essay written by the novelist George Orwell and published in 1946. It criticizes the written English of his time. Orwell argues for a writing style that is plain and transparent. The most important thing in writing is to make one’s meaning clear.

Orwell brings up numerous problems that plague writers’ works. The most important of these issues is the use of canned phrases. Many writers do not take the time to craft new sentences with select words that specifically get the writer’s meaning across. Many writers rely on phrases, these phrases are then “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”, the result being poor writing. By the use of phrases the writer loses precision and his or her own voice. Orwell also suggests avoiding pretentious and inappropriate words. Writers often fail to visualize the words used; they often favour abstract meaningless words over concrete. He suggests that writers should avoid using everyday, well-known metaphors.

This decline in language is not permanent and can be prevented by the writer if he or she strives to write good English. Orwell suggests reasons for this deterioration of English. These poor writing habits spread by imitation. The decline of language can be explained by political and economic factors. Political writing often strives to be vague; it uses this as a technique to obscure the details. In this sense, I would argue, political writing is effective. It accomplishes what it intended to do, even if its intent is hardly virtuous. When writing I always begin with what I want to accomplish, how I wish my audience to react, or what I want them to feel or learn. However, Orwell points out that political writing is often mechanical and ineffective.

The “fix” does not entail setting up a Standard English. Orwell notes that the issue does not lie in grammar or syntax. Good writing is writing that best gets the writer’s meaning across to his or her reader. The writer should use the fewest and shortest words required and have the intended meaning already mapped before the writing process begins. Bad writing occurs because the writer is rushed and lazy. If the writer is willing to take the time to truly craft original sentences with active selection of appropriate words his or her writing will improve.

The biggest impact that this essay had on me was Orwell’s critique of phrases. I will often use canned phrases when writing, I acknowledge that this occurs due to economic reasons; it simply takes more effort and time to write well. Since reading the essay I have also begun to analyze the phrases that I use in daily speech, it would be very difficult to craft original sentences for everything that I say. There are a few key differences between writing and speaking. Speaking allows the receiver of the message to have instantaneous feedback, if the meaning is not clear the receiver can alert the speaker. In person communication also allows other aspects of communication such as body language and intonation, which are extremely important for accurate communication. The writer does not have these supporting components. The writer must ensure meaning through the use of words alone. The lack of feedback means that the writer must have an understanding of his or her target audience and write for that audience.

I think that being more active and dedicated in the writing process will lead to more effective writing where the thoughts in my mind are more accurately transferred to the reader. Words should be selected that give imagery and not vagueness. Sentences should be unique and meaningful.

James Thumb
Canning phrases in Vernon, BC
May 2014

The essay can be read here:

1 comment:

  1. Many of our readers (and writers) here on Miffed can use some of this advice. Every sentence we write needs to have a purpose and written with clarity. I enjoyed the separation of writing and speaking. Many people struggle with writing because they don't acknowledge how different the two modes of communication truly are.