In the English section in the Largo Argentina Feltrinelli bookshop the other day, I found a thin gem: the essay “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell. I’ve looked it up online but was delighted to find Penguin has printed it. Orwell’s advice or warnings about the decline of English should not to be taken lightly. The observations he made about modern English in 1945 are still true in 2013.
Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.
I think it’s right to say that anyone who writes wants what they write to be understood. To be understood, the writer must write clearly, with words and metaphors chosen for their meaning, vivid imagery and concreteness. So why is so much of what we read today wrapped up in the pretentious diction and stale metaphors that Orwell advises against? As Orwell points out, it’s obvious: the writer herself doesn’t know what she is writing about. The language dirties the thoughts that in turn dirty the language.
Orwell kindly provides us with six questions scrupulous writers can ask each sentence to make sure it will be understood.
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
If there’s any kind rich soul out there who is desperately saddened by bad writing, I beg you, please send out thousands of this essay to every organization and business (who are the worst perpetrators of this crime). Drop these pamphlets from airplanes unfurling the banner: Save the English Language!
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