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Excerpts from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

July 29, 2009

“…it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to 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. …

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

…words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

…The defense of the English language… has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.

It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear… On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial… though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. …
I think the following rules will cover most cases:

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

…language [is] an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

*
[Click here for the whole essay, which should be revisited at least thrice a year by all.]

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