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Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
- George Orwell
As there are a million wonderfully diverse words available to the English speaker, it is great to be able to choose a word, however unknown, if it really pins down the quiddity of a concept. But if your audience does not know of that delightfully descriptive term, then what use is it?
I remember learning this showy phrase at a young age:
“A slight inclination of the cranium is as inadequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic to an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visual capacity“.
Translation: a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.
As the first one sounds so well spoken, it’s easy to think ‘oo, that sounds like someone clever wrote it, therefore it must be true‘, but the presentation of a message is not necessarily an indicator of its truthfulness, a kind of argument from authority.
A good example is in the previous sentence: I wanted to say ‘veracity‘, but ‘truthfulness‘ is a word that is more easily understood – given it’s used more often – so will be more likely to help you understand the point I’m making. On the other hand, the Latin etymology of the erudite alternative does make it sound more authoritative. There are studies that prove if something is written simply, and even if the font is easier to read, then the reader is more likely to accept the points made – it’s a cognitive bias called cognitive ease.
Anyway, enough waffle. To the essay at hand. In it Orwell describes how to write terse, clear English, which clearly communicates with the reader. He decries the use of obfuscatory language, saying we should use simple concrete language, only adding more words if they add more meaning.
We should use fresh metaphors that evoke a strong image in the mind of a reader, rather than one dulled by overuse – ‘carrot and stick‘ is a good example.
When a metaphor is new it has a great effect as it brings a sharp image to the mind of the listener, adding weight to the case. However, once one is accustomed to the turn of phrase, it simply becomes an abstract grouping of words with a meaning attached, and loses its visual power. Interestingly many linguists argue that most if not all words were birthed in a metaphor, so its power may have increased in other ways: once it is in common use, it has a well defined meaning and can convey that meaning more efficiently.
C. S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Orwell says we should use ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘method’ rather than ‘methodology’… the list is literally endless. Sorry about that one – I had to squeeze in that pet hate. Using literally as an intensifier, or in place of its antonym figuratively, is egregious.
He opposes the use of unnecessary words. The pretentious “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” should be replaced with “I think“. It may make the presentation appear more grandiose, but it adds no meaning. We all know that when a politician answers a question, they do go on and on with their formulaic phrases; hearing them answer a question with a simple ‘yes‘ or ‘no‘ is quite jarring, yet I see it as refreshingly clear and honest.
Whilst discussing such things it behoves me to point out that ‘while‘ is a perfectly serviceable word. Why do people insist on using its anachronistic predecessor? Dost thou think thine utterances carry increased weight? No, they just sound asinine.
I will say that while I like well written English, I do object to a slavish following of the rules. Old Churchill puts it well: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”. Orwell says “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear“.
Orwell says: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against“. Ahem. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.
Orwell ends his essay with six rules for writing good English, which are nicely summed up in this comment: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.“