A Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’
By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is one of the best-known essays by George Orwell (1903-50). As its title suggests, Orwell identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation: Orwell sees modern discourse (especially political discourse) as being less a matter of words chosen for their clear meanings than a series of stock phrases slung together.
You can read ‘Politics and the English Language’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s essay below.
‘Politics and the English Language’: summary
Orwell begins by drawing attention to the strong link between the language writers use and the quality of political thought in the current age (i.e. the 1940s). He argues that if we use language that is slovenly and decadent, it makes it easier for us to fall into bad habits of thought, because language and thought are so closely linked.
Orwell then gives five examples of what he considers bad political writing. He draws attention to two faults which all five passages share: staleness of imagery and lack of precision . Either the writers of these passages had a clear meaning to convey but couldn’t express it clearly, or they didn’t care whether they communicated any particular meaning at all, and were simply saying things for the sake of it.
Orwell writes that this is a common problem in current political writing: ‘prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.’
Next, Orwell elaborates on the key faults of modern English prose, namely:
Dying Metaphors : these are figures of speech which writers lazily reach for, even though such phrases are worn-out and can no longer convey a vivid image. Orwell cites a number of examples, including toe the line , no axe to grind , Achilles’ heel , and swansong . Orwell’s objection to such dying metaphors is that writers use them without even thinking about what the phrases actually mean, such as when people misuse toe the line by writing it as tow the line , or when they mix their metaphors, again, because they’re not interested in what those images evoke.
Operators or Verbal False Limbs : this is when a longer and rather vague phrase is used in place of a single-word (and more direct) verb, e.g. make contact with someone, which essentially means ‘contact’ someone. The passive voice is also common, and writing phrases like by examination of instead of the more direct by examining . Sentences are saved from fizzling out (because the thought or idea being conveyed is not particularly striking) by largely meaningless closing platitudes such as greatly to be desired or brought to a satisfactory conclusion .
Pretentious Diction : Orwell draws attention to several areas here. He states that words like objective , basis , and eliminate are used by writers to dress up simple statements, making subjective opinion sound like scientific fact. Adjectives like epic , historic , and inevitable are used about international politics, while writing that glorifies war is full of old-fashioned words like realm , throne , and sword .
Foreign words and phrases like deus ex machina and mutatis mutandis are used to convey an air of culture and elegance. Indeed, many modern English writers are guilty of using Latin or Greek words in the belief that they are ‘grander’ than home-grown Anglo-Saxon ones: Orwell mentions Latinate words like expedite and ameliorate here. All of these examples are further proof of the ‘slovenliness and vagueness’ which Orwell detects in modern political prose.
Meaningless Words : Orwell argues that much art criticism and literary criticism in particular is full of words which don’t really mean anything at all, e.g. human , living , or romantic . ‘Fascism’, too, has lost all meaning in current political writing, effectively meaning ‘something not desirable’ (one wonders what Orwell would make of the word’s misuse in our current time!).
To prove his point, Orwell ‘translates’ a well-known passage from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes into modern English, with all its vagueness of language. ‘The whole tendency of modern prose’, he argues, ‘is away from concreteness.’ He draws attention to the concrete and everyday images (e.g. references to bread and riches) in the Bible passage, and the lack of any such images in his own fabricated rewriting of this passage.
The problem, Orwell says, is that it is too easy (and too tempting) to reach for these off-the-peg phrases than to be more direct or more original and precise in one’s speech or writing.
Orwell advises every writer to ask themselves four questions (at least): 1) what am I trying to say? 2) what words will express it? 3) what image or idiom will make it clearer? and 4) is this image fresh enough to have an effect? He proposes two further optional questions: could I put it more shortly? and have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Orthodoxy, Orwell goes on to observe, tends to encourage this ‘lifeless, imitative style’, whereas rebels who are not parroting the ‘party line’ will normally write in a more clear and direct style.
But Orwell also argues that such obfuscating language serves a purpose: much political writing is an attempt to defend the indefensible, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan (just one year before Orwell wrote ‘Politics and the English Language’), in such a euphemistic way that the ordinary reader will find it more palatable.
When your aim is to make such atrocities excusable, language which doesn’t evoke any clear mental image (e.g. of burning bodies in Hiroshima) is actually desirable.
Orwell argues that just as thought corrupts language, language can corrupt thought, with these ready-made phrases preventing writers from expressing anything meaningful or original. He believes that we should get rid of any word which has outworn its usefulness and should aim to use ‘the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning’.
Writers should let the meaning choose the word, rather than vice versa. We should think carefully about what we want to say until we have the right mental pictures to convey that thought in the clearest language.
Orwell concludes ‘Politics and the English Language’ with six rules for the writer to follow:
i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
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 sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
‘Politics and the English Language’: analysis
In some respects, ‘Politics and the English Language’ advances an argument about good prose language which is close to what the modernist poet and thinker T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) argued for poetry in his ‘ A Lecture on Modern Poetry ’ and ‘Notes on Language and Style’ almost forty years earlier.
Although Hulme and Orwell came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, their objections to lazy and worn-out language stem are in many ways the same.
Hulme argued that poetry should be a forge where fresh metaphors are made: images which make us see the world in a slightly new way. But poetic language decays into common prose language before dying a lingering death in journalists’ English. The first time a poet described a hill as being ‘clad [i.e. clothed] with trees’, the reader would probably have mentally pictured such an image, but in time it loses its power to make us see anything.
Hulme calls these worn-out expressions ‘counters’, because they are like discs being moved around on a chessboard: an image which is itself not unlike Orwell’s prefabricated hen-house in ‘Politics and the English Language’.
Of course, Orwell’s focus is English prose rather than poetry, and his objections to sloppy writing are not principally literary (although that is undoubtedly a factor) but, above all, political. And he is keen to emphasise that his criticism of bad language, and suggestions for how to improve political writing, are both, to an extent, hopelessly idealistic: as he observes towards the end of ‘Politics and the English Language’, ‘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.’
But what Orwell advises is that the writer be on their guard against such phrases, the better to avoid them where possible. This is why he encourages writers to be more self-questioning (‘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?’) when writing political prose.
Nevertheless, the link between the standard of language and the kind of politics a particular country, regime, or historical era has is an important one. As Orwell writes: ‘I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.’
Those writing under a dictatorship cannot write or speak freely, of course, but more importantly, those defending totalitarian rule must bend and abuse language in order to make ugly truths sound more attractive to the general populace, and perhaps to other nations.
In more recent times, the phrase ‘collateral damage’ is one of the more objectionable phrases used about war, hiding the often ugly reality (innocent civilians who are unfortunate victims of violence, but who are somehow viewed as a justifiable price to pay for the greater good).
Although Orwell’s essay has been criticised for being too idealistic, in many ways ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains as relevant now as it was in 1946 when it was first published.
Indeed, to return to Orwell’s opening point about decadence, it is unavoidable that the standard of political discourse has further declined since Orwell’s day. Perhaps it’s time a few more influential writers started heeding his argument?
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9 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’”
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YES! Thank you!
A great and useful post. As a writer, I have been seriously offended by the politicization of the language in the past 50 years. Much of this is supposedly to sanitize, de-genderize, or diversity-fie language – exactly as it’s done in Orwell’s “1984.” How did a wonderfully useful word like gay – cheerful or lively – come to mean homosexual? And is optics not a branch of physics? Ironically, when the liberal but sensible JK Rowling criticized the replacement of “woman” with “person who menstruates” SHE was the one attacked. Now, God help us, we hope “crude” spaceships will get humans to Mars – which, if you research the poor quality control in Tesla cars, might in fact be a proper term.
And less anyone out there misread, this or me – I was a civil rights marcher, taught in a girls’ high school (where I got in minor trouble for suggesting to the students that they should aim higher than the traditional jobs of nurse or teacher), and – while somewhat of a mugwump – consider myself a liberal.
But I will fight to keep the language and the history from being 1984ed.
My desert island book would be the Everyman Essays of Orwell which is around 1200 pages. I’ve read it all the way through twice without fatigue and read individual essays endlessly. His warmth and affability help, Even better than Montaigne in this heretic’s view.
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I’ll go against the flow here and say Orwell was – at least in part – quite wrong here. If I recall correctly, he was wrong about a few things including, I think, the right way to make a cup of tea! In all seriousness, what he fails to acknowledge in this essay is that language is a living thing and belongs to the people, not the theorists, at all time. If a metaphor changes because of homophone mix up or whatever, then so be it. Many of our expressions we have little idea of now – I think of ‘baited breath’ which almost no one, even those who know how it should be spelt, realise should be ‘abated breath’.
Worse than this though, his ‘rules’ have indeed been taken up by many would-be writers to horrifying effect. I recall learning to make up new metaphors and similes rather than use clichés when I first began training ten years ago or more. I saw some ghastly new metaphors over time which swiftly made me realise that there’s a reason we use the same expressions a great deal and that is they are familiar and do the job well. To look at how to use them badly, just try reading Gregory David Roberts ‘Shantaram’. Similarly, the use of active voice has led to unpalatable writing which lacks character. The passive voice may well become longwinded when badly used, but it brings character when used well.
That said, Orwell is rarely completely wrong. Some of his points – essentially, use words you actually understand and don’t be pretentious – are valid. But the idea of the degradation of politics is really quite a bit of nonsense!
Always good to get some critique of Orwell, Ken! And I do wonder how tongue-in-cheek he was when proposing his guidelines – after all, even he admits he’s probably broken several of his own rules in the course of his essay! I think I’m more in the T. E. Hulme camp than the Orwell – poetry can afford to bend language in new ways (indeed, it often should do just this), and create daring new metaphors and ways of viewing the world. But prose, especially political non-fiction, is there to communicate an argument or position, and I agree that ghastly new metaphors would just get in the way. One of the things that is refreshing reading Orwell is how many of the problems he identified are still being discussed today, often as if they are new problems that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Orwell shows that at least one person was already discussing them over half a century ago!
Absolutely true! When you have someone of Orwell’s intelligence and clear thinking, even when you believe him wrong or misguided, he is still relevant and remains so decades later.
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Politics and the English Language
By george orwell.
- Politics and the English Language Summary
George Orwell ’s essay “ Politics and the English Language ,” begins by refuting common presumptions that hold that the decline of the English language is a reflection of the state of society and politics, that this degeneration is inevitable, and that it’s hopeless to resist it. This disempowering idea, he says, derives from an understanding of language as a “natural growth” rather than an “instrument which we shape for our own purposes” (251). As an instrument, language can be manipulated for various purposes. As Orwell will show, language can also manipulate those who use it unconsciously.
He presents a list of corrupting habits that cause writers to think poorly and thus write poorly. The list includes unoriginal or mixed metaphors, pretentious diction, and abstract or meaningless language. When a person becomes lazy they allow their language to think for them. In this way, political writers end up following a party line. By using set phrases, they pantomime ideology without thinking. Independent thinking is necessary for a healthy political life.
As corrupted language smothers independent, original thinking, it thus serves a political purpose. Orwell demonstrates the deceptive effect of various political terms, showing how elevated, complex and abstract language actively disguises ugly and violent concrete realities. In this way, abstract language becomes a means for political writers to “justify unjustifiables.” He presents a list of tools that can be used to resist dishonest language.
Orwell sees the use of honest language as political act in itself, a form of resistance against insidious and widespread manipulations of rhetorical structures. He says that in an atmosphere of “terrible politics” (such as the period in which he’s writing), corrupted language is almost inevitable. But this doesn’t make the resistance against it futile. He returns to the claim that he opens with: that language is a tool, and not a natural evolutionary growth. It’s thus possible to manipulate that tool. It does however, take diligent, conscious effort on the part of the political writer or speaker. Orwell thinks that mindless and actively deceptive language can be identified and resisted through ridicule, and, most of all, through a diligent commitment to honest representation.
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Politics and English language
- 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...
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Politics and the English Language study guide contains a biography of George Orwell, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
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Politics and the English Language
Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1946
George Orwell’s essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946) is a critique of the conventions of written English in the modernist and post-World War II era, focusing specifically on the correlation between political correctness and intellectual and linguistic poverty. Orwell lambasts people who use language as a tool to obfuscate, rather than convey, truth, arguing that language, though political, should never be weaponized with the intent to exploit vulnerable readers. Moreover, he remarks that such a use of language masks truth even from the one who thinks of and deploys it. The essay is well known for being an unusually literal and didactic departure from Orwell’s usual subject matter, which employs extended metaphors that refer to economic and class issues. The essay appears in the essay collection, Why I Write . Read further analysis of "Politics and the English Language" in the SuperSummary Study Guide for Why I Write .
Orwell relates what he sees as a direct correlation between bad writing and oppressive thought. He characterizes virtually all contemporary political speech and political prose as written to defend, minimize, or obfuscate atrocities and blatant inequities occurring in society. He gives the examples of continued British colonization of India on both political and ideological lines, as well as Russian deportations of Jews and dissenting figures, and the United States’ decision to decimate Hiroshima with an atom bomb. Though these actions, like any action, can be defended, the arguments that they necessitate require language that is too harsh for public consumption and conflicts with the professed aims of the political parties who wish to advocate for them. As a result, political language now relies mainly on minimizing language to euphemisms and deliberate vagueness. For example, the violent seizure of an enemy town might be termed “pacification,” while driving citizens from their homelands in mass deportations might be called a “transfer of population.” Orwell traces this linguistic phenomenon to the fact that vague language prevents one’s audience from coming to immediate terms with the often-violent realities that are its referents.
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Next, Orwell posits that insincerity is inimical to clarity of thought and language. Whenever there is a lacuna between a writer or speaker’s real and stated goals, the writer resorts to overly complex or grandiose language and overused idioms . He employs the simile of a cuttlefish spurting out ink to elude its foe. When writers, the supposed champions and representatives of their audience’s conception of language’s abilities and ends, disguise their points in strange diction, they perpetuate the ideologies of doublethink and euphemism. This kicks off a vicious cycle where language perpetually declines as language users resort to simpler and simpler words and phrasings. He compares this to the pathology of the alcoholic, who usually begins drinking excessively because he already feels like a failure. As he continues to drink, he ensures his failure, instigating his own fulfillment of this destructive attribution.
Orwell points out two more devices that insincere writers use. One is pretentious diction; that is, the use of overly complex or academic words to express biased viewpoints as if they were scientific and unbiased. The other is meaningless diction, the substitution of filler words where real arguments should be to exhaust the reader’s attention before reaching the crux of an argument. He states that these habits spread mainly by imitation, creating a kind of linguistic virus that propagates through various media. He argues that it behooves writers to help their audience think more clearly by themselves thinking more clearly and producing lucid writing that matches the content of their imaginations.
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Orwell concludes with a list of six rules that form a simple and finite axiomatic program to generate compelling and lucid writing. He poses the list as a remedy to the constant temptation to deploy meaningless diction, which always threatens to arrest and stifle the intellectual potential of the writer. The first rule is to never use a simile, metaphor, or any other figure of speech that one has already seen frequently used in other texts. He calls these “dying metaphors,” asserting that they are generally used when a writer doesn’t actually know what he or she means. Additionally, because of their vagueness and overuse, they are highly susceptible to manipulation in meaning. The second rule is to never use a longer word when a short word suffices as a unit of meaning. The third is to remove excess words that do not advance the argument or image under consideration. The fourth is to avoid passive voice . The fifth is to avoid using foreign, scientific, or overly dialectical words when there is an ordinary equivalent in a given language. The sixth and final rule is Orwell’s exhortation to willingly break these rules if it prevents one from saying something “barbarous.” Orwell ends his essay on a slightly optimistic note, arguing that the decline of the English language is reversible, and can be enacted by following rules such as the ones he has laid out.
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Politics and the English Language
George orwell, everything you need for every book you read..
The Danger of Intellectual Laziness
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell ’s central point is that bad writing produces bad politics. According to Orwell, a culture full of lazily written nonsense enables governments to control citizens through deceptive messaging. This is because lazy writing leads to lazy thinking—or, rather, to a lack of critical thinking about the messages one receives. To get from bad writing to bad politics, Orwell draws a line from laziness, to nonsensical…
Style as a Political Issue
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pays careful attention to style—that is, how a person says something: the tone, syntax, flow of sentences, metaphors, and choice of words. He argues that the style in which people communicate determines the degree to which their governments can pass off lies as truths. In doing so, Orwell attempts to convince a politically minded audience that the specific way people express themselves—that is, their language itself—is inseparable from…
Honesty, Truth, and Concision
In addition to arguing against linguistic laziness, Orwell argues specifically for a writing process that encourages concision—that is, using as few words as possible to get a point across. Indeed, two of his proposed rules for good writing include: “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Underlining this argument is the idea that reality or facts (or…
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The Orwell Foundation is delighted to make available a selection of essays, articles, sketches, reviews and scripts written by Orwell.
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Sketches For Burmese Days
- 1. John Flory – My Epitaph
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- A Day in the Life of a Tramp ( Le Progrès Civique , 1929)
- A Hanging ( The Adelphi , 1931)
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- Antisemitism in Britain ( Contemporary Jewish Record , 1945)
- Arthur Koestler (written 1944)
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- Can Socialists be Happy? (as John Freeman, Tribune , 1943)
- Common Lodging Houses ( New Statesman , 3 September 1932)
- Confessions of a Book Reviewer ( Tribune , 1946)
- “For what am I fighting?” ( New Statesman , 4 January 1941)
- Freedom and Happiness – Review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin ( Tribune , 1946)
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- Future of a Ruined Germany ( The Observer , 1945)
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- In Defence of English Cooking ( Evening Standard , 1945)
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- Just Junk – But Who Could Resist It? ( Evening Standard , 1946)
- My Country Right or Left ( Folios of New Writing , 1940)
- Nonsense Poetry ( Tribune , 1945)
- Notes on Nationalism ( Polemic , October 1945)
- Pleasure Spots ( Tribune , January 1946)
- Poetry and the microphone ( The New Saxon Pamphlet , 1945)
- Politics and the English Language ( Horizon , 1946)
- Politics vs. Literature: An examination of Gulliver’s Travels ( Polemic , 1946)
- Reflections on Gandhi ( Partisan Review , 1949)
- Rudyard Kipling ( Horizon , 1942)
- Second Thoughts on James Burnham ( Polemic , 1946)
- Shooting an Elephant ( New Writing , 1936)
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- Spilling the Spanish Beans ( New English Weekly , 29 July and 2 September 1937)
- The Art of Donald McGill ( Horizon , 1941)
- The Moon Under Water ( Evening Standard , 1946)
- The Prevention of Literature ( Polemic , 1946)
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- Why I Write ( Gangrel , 1946)
- You and the Atom Bomb ( Tribune , 1945)
Reviews by Orwell
- Anonymous Review of Burmese Interlude by C. V. Warren ( The Listener , 1938)
- Anonymous Review of Trials in Burma by Maurice Collis ( The Listener , 1938)
- Review of The Pub and the People by Mass-Observation ( The Listener , 1943)
Letters and other material
- BBC Archive: George Orwell
- Free will (a one act drama, written 1920)
- George Orwell to Steven Runciman (August 1920)
- George Orwell to Victor Gollancz (9 May 1937)
- George Orwell to Frederic Warburg (22 October 1948, Letters of Note)
- ‘Three parties that mattered’: extract from Homage to Catalonia (1938)
- Voice – a magazine programme , episode 6 (BBC Indian Service, 1942)
- Your Questions Answered: Wigan Pier (BBC Overseas Service)
- The Freedom of the Press: proposed preface to Animal Farm (1945, first published 1972)
- Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm (March 1947)
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“Politics and the English Language.” By George Orwell.
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell poses a thoughtful question: Does language experience “natural growth” or is it shaped “for our own purposes”? In other words, does the English language organically evolve over time or is it purposefully manipulated in order to affect the social order? Anyone familiar with Orwell’s body of work can probably guess at the trajectory of his response. Although one could argue that this seminal essay on 20th-century linguistics was written merely to lament the “general collapse” of language as a reflection of the general collapse of civilization following the Second World War, Orwell’s ultimate purpose is to show that social activists can unduly manipulate language for their own ends by obscuring meaning, corrupting thought, and rendering language a minefield in the political landscape. Why? Orwell says: to effect changes in thought and affections and to shame those who somehow prove impervious to manipulation.
Orwell dramatizes this assertion in Nineteen Eighty-Four . Published three years after “Politics and the English Language,” the iconic dystopic novel imagines a futuristic government that manipulates language so that its citizens conform in thought, word, and deed to a narrow political orthodoxy. Language, in fact, is the primary change agent, assisted by government-engineered fearmongering and savage punishments for language dissidents.
Just as language matters in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four , it matters in our world too. Consider, for example, the basics of “inclusive language.” Back when Orwell was writing, and throughout much of the 20th century, the accepted universal singular pronouns were he , him , and his , a reality codified in every English grammar text published before 1999. These pronouns referred to any individual, whether male or female, as in “Every student should bring his book to class.” The meaning was clear, the convention was understood, and because it was an accepted grammatical convention, no one was denounced as sexist for applying its usage. Some years later, in an effort to be “inclusive,” language handlers in academia and the publishing industry pointed out that the convention itself was sexist and reinforced sexism in society. If they could change the convention, they reasoned, they could change society.
The language handlers first promoted the alternative “inclusive” usage of he or she , him or her , and his or hers — and soon thereafter demanded it. Those who continued using traditional grammatical constructions that included the universal pronouns he , him , and his (especially men) were often branded, on the basis of their grammar alone, as sexists. But mere social stigma later gave way to punitive actions. For example, in 2013, California State University, Chico, revised its definition of sexual harassment and sexual violence to include “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes.” Thus, Chico profs who say, “Every student should bring his book to class” are susceptible to disciplinary actions, up to and including dismissal. As you might imagine, Chico is not alone in this. Rather, this is the norm on most college campuses.
But now, in 2020, it is no longer acceptable to use he or she or him or her . What was once promoted and then demanded by language handlers as inclusive has now been deemed verboten by the same people! Who are these language handlers? In brief, they are the engineers of the English-language style manuals used by academia, the media, and the publishing industry, all easy prey to special-interest lobbyists who demand language changes to promote their sociopolitical agendas. Last year, for example, the American Psychological Association (APA) announced a change to its stylebook, advocating for the singular they because it is “inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.” The APA style guide makes it clear that using his or her is no longer inclusive and no longer acceptable. This could not have happened without the proponents of transgenderism pushing for the manipulation of language. In order for the APA’s statement to make any sense — “they…is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender” — one is forced to accept the premises of transgenderism, including the theory of so-called nonbinary gender. If one is to accept the usage of the singular they , one must also accept the fantasy that an infinite number of genders exists and that language is tied to something called “gender expression” rather than to sex, which is binary (i.e., male and female).
In 2018 the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released a “Statement on Gender and Language,” promoting the use of the singular they as the only inclusive universal pronoun. In its position statement, the NCTE actually spells out the premises one must accept in order to make sense of the singular they . This is not about language clarity or precision; this is about advancing a sociopolitical agenda that requires everyone — yes, everyone — to accept the following terms:
Gender identity: an individual’s feeling about, relationship with, and understanding of gender as it pertains to their sense of self. An individual’s gender identity may or may not be related to the sex that individual was assigned at birth.
Gender expression: external presentation of one’s gender identity, often through behavior, clothing, haircut, or voice, which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
Cisgender: of or relating to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transgender: of or relating to a person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This umbrella term may refer to someone whose gender identity is woman or man, or to someone whose gender identity is nonbinary (see below).
Nonbinary: of or relating to a person who does not identify, or identify solely, as either a woman or a man. More specific nonbinary identifiers include but are not limited to terms such as agender and gender fluid (see below).
Gender fluid: of or relating to individuals whose identity shifts among genders. This term overlaps with terms such as genderqueer and bigender, implying movement among gender identities and/or presentations.
Agender: of or relating to a person who does not identify with any gender, or who identifies as neutral or genderless.
The NCTE, like the APA, the Chicago Manual of Style , and the Associated Press, not only advocates using the singular they , it also prohibits “using he as a universal pronoun” and “using binary alternatives such as he/she , he or she , or (s)he .” And, in case you don’t understand the prohibition, the NCTE provides an example of the forbidden “exclusionary (binary)” language: “Every cast member should know his or her lines by Friday” must be rephrased as “Every cast member should know their lines by Friday.” But the new convention presents an offense against the dignity of traditional grammar usage, as the plural pronoun, their, does not agree with its singular subject, cast member . (Really now, a simpler rewrite would render the sentence both grammatically correct and “inclusive”: All cast members should know their lines by Friday .) And, according to NCTE, in the case of a student named Alex, who declares that his preferred pronouns are they , them , and their, a teacher should say, “Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday.” Yes, seriously, this is the example given by the NCTE. (And whose lines, one may ask? Everyone’s lines? This phrasing is lacking in precision and clarity, and this from the organization that exerts enormous influence over our nation’s high-school English teachers!) To be sure, teachers and students will be forced to utter the ridiculous: Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday . Failing to do so could, in the near future, be construed as gender harassment and be cause for expulsion or sacking.
So, why does it matter what the APA or the Chicago Manual of Style or the NCTE has to say on the matter of nonbinary, gender-inclusive language and the singular they ? Well, the APA sets the writing style and format conventions for academic essays for many college and high-school students, as well as for scholarly articles and books. The Chicago Manual of Style (published by the University of Chicago) sets the editorial standards and conventions that are widely used in the publishing industry. And the NCTE, as mentioned above, sets the tone for high-school English teachers across the nation, those who will teach our children to read, write, and speak.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell calls this “an invasion of one’s mind” — again, the purposeful manipulation of language in order to corrupt one’s thoughts and affections. Thus, the choice of academia, the media, and the publishing industry to adopt the singular they is not simply about word choice — as silly and illogical as it may be: Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday! — it is about forcing students and others to accept the language of transgenderism and the ideological corollaries behind the vocabulary. It is asking us all to accept something that is less than reality. Pronouns, we are told, are no longer related to the body (male and female) but to the mind, how one “identifies” or “expresses” the social construct of gender. Reality is denied, and the fluid world of one’s nonbinary fancy replaces it.
It is worth noting that last year the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education published a 30-page document, “Male and Female He Created Them,” on this very topic. Quoting Pope Francis, it explains that gender theory “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” This ideology, Pope Francis explains, promotes “a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” Thus, in the case of the Catholic educator or the Catholic student, one must compromise one’s religious principles in order to conform to the industry standards of language.
This attempt to transplant pronouns from the body to the mind, Orwell might say, is an attempt to destroy our ability to communicate. According to this new norm, one can now choose from a multitude of “gender identities” — or simply make up a new one — none of which has any fixed link to a specific set of pronouns. (Some recently emerging gender pronouns include zir, ze, xe, hir, per, ve, ey, hen , and thon . And there are more! Facebook, for example, offers 50 options. Fifty!) In fact, following this reasoning, gender expressionists may, at any time and for any reason, decide to change their preferred personal pronouns but without changing their gender identity; they may also decide to change their gender identity without changing their preferred pronouns — or they may choose to change both.
This is the kind of linguistic pretension that, as Orwell warns, obscures meaning, corrupts thought, and renders language a minefield in the political landscape. Why a minefield? As Orwell illustrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four , language-engineering is an attempt to shame or punish those who disagree with the ascribed linguistic orthodoxy. And, again, to what end? As Chicago-based community activist Saul Alinsky famously wrote in his manifesto Rules for Radicals (1971), “He who controls the language controls the masses.” (Note his use of “sexist language” by way of the universal singular pronoun he. ) Alinsky, an enthusiastic advocate of manipulating language for political purposes, agrees with Orwell: It’s all about thought control; it’s about superimposing a sociopolitical ideology on the masses; it’s about altering our understanding of the world; it’s about customizing the language to effect whimsical social change. It’s ultimately about altering reality so that, as Orwell dramatized in Nineteen Eighty-Four , we come to accept that “war is peace,” that “freedom is slavery,” and that two plus two equals five.
Orwell, as evidenced by “Politics and the English Language,” believes that language should reflect reality. If it doesn’t, what possible limits could be placed on misleading, manipulative language, whether in grade-school textbooks, government documents, or political campaign literature? If language is “always evolving,” as many commentators have reasoned in their recent support of so-called nonbinary, gender-inclusive language (including the singular they ), what is stopping anyone from using this as an excuse to effect any change in any language for any reason at any time?
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George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'
George Orwell published his famous essay "Politics and the English Language" in 1946, and we mostly wish he hadn't.
Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.
Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.
Download the episode here .
Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, things get Orwellian in the narrowest sense of the word. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. In 1946, George Orwell published his now-famous essay, "Politics and the English Language." Ammon sincerely wishes he hadn't.
Ammon Shea: One of the questions I feel like when you work in dictionaries that you often get from people, is that people always want to know what words are there that you hate, or that one hates or would banish from the language, and what words do you like. I feel like most lexicographers I know are pretty studious in trying to avoid having favorites or certainly about having dis-favorite words. But what I do have a distaste for is writings about words. My least favorite words are just peeves about language. I have to say perhaps foremost among my personal peeves is a piece of writing that is beloved by many. I like to think this is not just my contrarian nature that makes it so despised by me. It's that I think it's a bad piece of writing. I am speaking, of course, of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Have you two feelings on this?
Peter Sokolowski: I've only just read it recently. It's one of those things that is referred to so frequently. I'm embarrassed to say, I don't think I ever studied it in school, so I took some of it kind of secondhand, for granted, the way lots of intellectual movements, someone didn't have to study Derrida to know what deconstruction is or to at least know that word is used often by other people. So I often took this to be a reference to the idea that politicians use words in a deliberately manipulative way. So I took it not as a linguistic document at all, but as a more philosophical or a political idea. I usually saw it in the context of names of political parties or movements or laws, something like the Clean Air Act, which I think was criticized for also helping fossil fuels. So people said, "Well, that's Orwellian," because you call it one thing but you really mean something else. So I interpreted it in that very filtered way through the culture.
Emily Brewster: I think I read it about five years after I read ) Animal Farm , so Animal Farm , eighth grade; freshman year of college maybe, "Politics and the English Language." I think I loved them both and believed them both completely. Thought they were just both absolutely brilliant. I didn't actually read this 1946 essay again until last night. I see some problems with Orwell's assertions at this stage, but I can also defend some of them, so.
Ammon Shea: Okay, great. What is this if not an argument. As you pointed out, it was published in 1946. It came out in the journal, "Horizon." When we talk about this particular essay, it is always important to note, and right at the beginning, that Orwell himself is claiming that he's not speaking about language in general. He's talking about political language, the language used by politicians. He specifically says, "I have not here been considering the literary use of language." If we're generous, we can give him that, but I think it's kind of a dodge because I feel like he does kind of broaden his scope. But also I feel like one of the things that has happened with this particular essay is that it is used as kind of a club by many people today in talking about language, and it is almost never used in the context of political language. People just talk out Orwell's views on English, and they don't say, "This is what Orwell had to say about politicians using the language. It's just used as a kind of general thing."
Ammon Shea: To me, one of the main problems is that Orwell seems to have very little idea of how language in general and English in particular actually works. It almost is farcically bad. I remember reading it as a kid and thinking, "Oh, this must be great. He's laying down these rules." We all love rules. We want rules about language. We want language to make sense. It feels very comforting to think that these are concrete steps that I can take to make my language use better, but they're not true. To say that the messenger is flawed is really being over-kind.
Emily Brewster: What does he say that's not true?
Ammon Shea: Well, he has a lot of things about, "Use short words. Never use a long word where a short word will do," which is this longstanding bugaboo with many people. Before Fowler wrote Modern English Usage , his famous book in 1926, he wrote a book with his brother, The King's English . They said you should always prefer the Saxon word to the Romance. E.B. White in The Elements of Style actually wrote, "Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin so use Anglo-Saxon words." Winston Churchill is quoted, whether he said it or not, as saying, "Short words are best, and the old words, when short are best of all." We've long had this feeling that you should go with the short Anglo-Saxon words rather than these fancy, flowery, long Latin words, which to me is just kind of a silly thing to say. I like long words, and when long words are appropriate, they're totally fine. So I think saying, "Never use a long word when a short one will do," is a little bit awkward considering that Orwell uses plenty of long words.
Emily Brewster: I'm looking at the essay. In the second paragraph he uses the word slovenliness . There's some significant letters in there.
Ammon Shea: What he's very good at doing, though, is breaking his own rule in the same sentence that he gives it. In this particular essay, he says, "There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could similarly to be got rid of." This is the section where he says, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Fly-blown is, of course, a metaphor. Unless the actual words here have the larva of flies growing out of them, they are not actually a fly-blown metaphor. They're metaphorical metaphors that he's talking about. The essay also has plenty of similes: "like cavalry horses answering the bugle," "a mass of Latin words," "falls upon the facts like soft snow." He talks about like a cuttlefish spreading out ink. He uses these similes and metaphors liberally. So it's kind of odd to me that he exhorts us to not use them. I think perhaps his most egregious mistake is when he says, "Never use the passive voice where you can use the active."
Emily Brewster: Except, Ammon, he doesn't say it like that. This stuck out to me also. He says-
Ammon Shea: It's the very first sentence. "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way," and then he says, "it is generally assumed," passive voice here, "that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it." He's using the passive voice to tell you not to use the passive voice. So either he doesn't believe his own advice, or he doesn't understand it.
Emily Brewster: Then later in the same essay, he says, "In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active." That itself is in the passive voice. "The passive voice is used," not "writers used the passive voice." Just to refresh people, if you wanted to say "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active," you would say "writers use the passive voice wherever possible, rather than preferring the active voice." So he is actively doing the things he says writers should not do in his own writing over and over again.
Ammon Shea: He does it in almost all cases. In fact, some people connected with language have found fault with this essay over the years. My favorite was, some while ago, some people went through and actually counted the number of instances in which he used the passive rather than the active voice and found that he was about twice as much as your average college essay at the time. He's using it in 20% of the cases as opposed to 10% of the time when people usually use it in this setting.
Emily Brewster: Wow.
Ammon Shea: He says, "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." He gives a list of phrases to avoid: deus ex machina , mutatis mutandis , status quo , ancien régime . If you go through any of his writing, he uses most of these in his other writings. He doesn't actually use them in this essay. So this is one that he's not okay with, but he does use them regularly. Overall, my favorite is his sixth rule, which is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." I like this so much because it is the one rule that he actually adheres to in his own writing. He breaks all of his own rules so much that it raises the question of why he thought that this should happened in the first place.
Peter Sokolowski: To me, it's the first sentence of the second paragraph that caught my eye because he identifies himself as being a member of a kind of club and invites us to join that club. He says, "Now it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes." Now, first of all, I don't think that's clear at all. Second of all, he's announcing himself as declinist, that "kids today" basically is what he's saying and that "everything must be worse today because I remember when it was better." That is basically the same exact argument we hear all the time. It's the exact same argument that was put against Webster's Third . It's declinism. It's that everything is going to pot and everything is terrible. The weird thing about Orwell is that he makes the same mistake that everyone with a declinist argument makes, which is that he expects language to provide logic. That's just not how writing works. He insists that the decadent culture has produced a collapse of language and that that collapsed language then perpetuates this decline, which is an intellectual race to the bottom, which was exactly the argument against Webster's Third , blaming the dictionary for a perceived drop in quality of standardized test results or something. But the difference is he often seems to be blaming the words rather than the writing.
Ammon Shea: I think he does blame the words rather than writing. He also thinks that if we all just steel ourselves, we can change this. We can stem the flow of bad language by just being conscious of the words that we use. We're going to set a good example. There's a great point in this where he talks about how "the jeers of a few journalists" have done away with a number of phrases that he doesn't like, like "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned." I think he's really overstating the effect that jeers of a few journalists can have on the language use of hundreds of millions of people. If you look at "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned," in the decades following the 1940s, they actually increased dramatically. They're not going away. If they did go away, it wouldn't be because a few journalists like George Orwell jeered at them. It would be because people just stopped using these phrases.
Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more on Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.
Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's "matters," M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.
Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at [email protected].
Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.
Emily Brewster: The conversation about George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" continues. I do think, though, that the writing that he objects to, and he starts out by giving five examples I think, it is bad writing. He is pointing out that there are real problems. Here is his first example, which I found just mind-numbing. It was by Professor Harold Lasky. The example says, "I am not indeed sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a 17th century Shelley had not become out of an experience ever more bitter in each year more alien to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate." I'm really good at reading opaque text, and this is really, really hard to follow.
Ammon Shea: I agree with you, absolutely. But I would point out that almost nothing in that would be fixed by any of the rules in Orwell's essay. He's using lots of short Saxon words in that piece. He's not using any metaphors or similes that I can see of. He's not using foreign expressions or phrases. I agree. That is a horrible piece of writing. I would not myself enjoy reading writing like that. Anyway, I'm with Orwell when he says that there is some bad writing out there, when he says there's bad political writing. Absolutely. But I feel that what he's kind of saying is let's make it better. Sure, I agree with that. That's where my agreement ends.
Emily Brewster: You agree with none of his advice?
Ammon Shea: I kind of agree with some of it a little bit. If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out? No, I don't agree with that. I think that's just a stylistic difference. I think if you look at writing in the 19th century, it's different than writing in the 20th century. It's just stylistically changed. I don't think that one is better for length than the other, or one is better for its brevity than the other.
Emily Brewster: I also have a problem with these kind of absolute statements: never use the passive voice, always use the fewest words possible. I think any kinds of absolutes are problematic. To always avoid any particular thing in writing is unhelpfully narrowing.
Ammon Shea: A great example of this kind of absolutism gone wrong is, we're all familiar with the "never end a sentence with a preposition." Of course, that's a meaningless thing. We end sentences with a preposition all the time. A lot of times the sentence construction demands ending a sentence with a preposition. Terminal prepositions are fine even though we've been hearing for hundreds of years that they're not. Every once in a while, somebody will come up with a variant on that. I used to occasionally see the rule in old uses books, "never end a sentence with a preposition or some other less meaningful word or insignificant word," I think was the way that they used to phrase it.
Ammon Shea: We're starting to make a little more sense if you don't want to end a sentence with a little blip, if you don't want to end your sentence with "of." Now, I don't think of prepositions as less meaningful or less significant personally, but that's just me. But I could see if somebody had the exhortation to end your sentence on an emphatic, meaningful, significant word, it's fine with me. I like that as a general rule of advice. But when you turn that into "Don't end it with a word that's less meaningful or significant," and that somehow becomes "Don't end it with a preposition or don't end it with this kind of thing," that's the kind of absolutism that just doesn't carry water.
Emily Brewster: This makes me think about the motivation for writing an essay such as this and the motivation for sharing an essay like this. This essay was written a long time ago now, in 1946. It is still something that people are talking about and are using in the aid of their own writing, and to try to get other people to be better writers. There is a desire among users of the English language to do that better, to become a better writer, and clearly Orwell thought that he had some important things as a skilled writer. This man was clearly a skilled writer of the English language. He published books. He knew how to use the English language. He was an expert in language use as much as anyone else who writes so many books or spend so much time using language. Any native speaker is actually also an expert. But he had a very specific kind of expertise, and he wanted to share this expertise with people. But he generalized his own expertise in a way that, as you point out, Ammon, was not even an accurate assessment of his own use. Why did he do that? What was he thinking?
Ammon Shea: I don't know why Orwell would write this. The lack of introspection here is stunning to me in that it comes up again and again and again. In the section on "Never use a long word where a short word one will do," he almost immediately says, "A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has got..." This phraseology? That's a pretty damn long word there. I'm sure I could cut phraseology down by at least two or three syllables. Shorter than phraseology? I don't know why he was so lacking in introspection about his own writing.
Ammon Shea: I do think I know why people are still so adamant in sharing this because I think people just want tools. They want to reduce this glorious mess that is English to a series of concrete steps that you can take to make it definably better. Should I use a long word? Never. How about, should I use this simile that I know? Never. These are things that you can say to yourself. When should I use a simile that I'm used to seeing in print? You should never a simile. No, I'm going to never use a simile, and my writing will therefore be better. But I don't think that language responds well to this kind of absolutism. It gives us a sense of comfort. It must be better because I'm following these rules that were set down in the journal, Horizon, and that our results will be better. I don't think that's the way that it works.
Peter Sokolowski: He's completely ignorant on matters of the scientific study of language, on what we would call linguistics. He's not a linguist, but he's a good writer. That is the problem here, which is that so many people and especially declinists or language change deniers, people who say "kids today," they often want language to be like math. They want it to be logical, and they want to find a formula. I think what this all points to for me is that good prose style is much more art than science, and it requires, dare I say it, humanities exposure, the kind of general exposure to good writing and lots of it that you can only get if you read a lot. That's really the club to join. Join the readers who then can identify, "Oh, yes. That is a nicely turned phrase."
Peter Sokolowski: The fact is Orwell writes this in 1946, and he has nothing but contempt and scorn for all political discourse. Yet, he's within a couple of years of Churchill saying, "We shall meet them on the beaches. We shall meet them on the landing grounds." He's within a couple of years of FDR saying, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Some of the greatest political utterances in the history of the language were made just a couple of years before this essay was written. So he's kind of deliberately putting his thumb on the scale, which is what a lot of essayists do. He's got the right reflex but the wrong tools. He's not equipped to help others write. All he really is doing is listing his peeves.
Emily Brewster: But Peter, of those examples that you cite, Churchill and FDR, I think Orwell would have given the thumbs up to. He would've said, "Yes, these are good examples."
Ammon Shea: But those are following his rules. There is something to be said for that. Those are well written, and I think they're very effective particularly as political discourse. Again, if we're going to be kind to Orwell we can say that, yes, a lot of what he's saying will apply to the current political language that was being used.
Ammon Shea: Something that Peter said a few minutes ago, and I'm going to disagree with that, which is that you said, "People want language to be like math." I think in some ways they do, but actually I think people want language to be like religion more than they want it to be like math. There's a comfort that people get from certain religious structures that some other people try to get from certain linguistic structures, that there are things which are done by the righteous, and there are things that are done by the unrighteous in a way. And that a lack of adherence to this set of structure betokens a lack of moral fiber in a way because we make these value judgments of people based on their language use which have nothing to do with anything a lot of the time. It's not a one-to-one comparison between religion and language, but I am often reminded of religious fervor when I hear the way that certain people talk about how language use should be.
Peter Sokolowski: A big part of the conversations that we've all had with members of the public or strangers, people who correspond with a dictionary in one way or another, is some kind of membership of a club. "You care about language in the way that I do." There is absolutely a huge moral component that is imposed upon that. We always are judging others by their use of language. We are always judged by our use of language, by the way we spell, by the way we pronounce words. That's just a simple human fact. It's easier for us as professionals to separate that from culture.
Peter Sokolowski: So what you just said, Ammon, which is so true, which is that these things have nothing to do with drawing moral conclusions, whether you end a sentence with a preposition or whether you don't put an apostrophe in "you're." Yet, it becomes a shorthand for the kind of person that I want to know or the kind of person that I grew up with or the kind of person my parents raised me to be. That's very extra-linguistic, isn't it? That's why I think, Ammon, your analysis is brilliant. That takes you into something like religion, like culture, that goes way beyond what a language can do, but we extrapolate so much from it.
Emily Brewster: Language does indeed do that. It is one of the things that a language does, the different ways that language are used. It generates these in-groups and out-groups. But I think it is really important to reflect back on that and to recognize that good grammar does not mean ethical. You can have by-the-book grammar and never conjugate a verb incorrectly and be a horribly unethical person. That is wholly possible.
Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.
Ammon Shea: If we go back to Orwell, I don't want to be too harsh in my assessment of him, though I don't think he had any business writing about language, but this was just an essay that he wrote. I think the real problem here was that it's been then kept alive by other people who are trying to turn it into something that it's not and that it's not equipped to handle. I think insofar as these kinds of exhortatory writing advice pieces go, I'm willing to go as far as "you should write better; you should consider your language; you should write carefully." I think these are all fine things to say. I start to shut down when I see the linguistic absolutism: "never do this," and "never do that." There are very few cases that I can think of in which you should never do something. I'm not going to say you should never, of course, because that would contraindicate myself. But there are very few cases in which I would feel comfortable saying, "Never do this."
Peter Sokolowski: If you remove politics from this essay, I find it hard to distinguish it from Strunk & White, another famous book that also offers advice that is poorly constructed from a linguistics point of view.
Ammon Shea: I think there are a lot of problems with Strunk & White, but I feel that Strunk & White is actually more forgiving than this. I mean, Strunk & White, I don't think they say things like, "Never start a sentence with 'and' and 'but.'" They actually have some flexibility, not much. I think Strunk & White is a horrible, dated document that should be burned in a trash heap. It's not as bad as this.
Peter Sokolowski: I can't help but quote our friend Geoffrey Pullum, the great grammarian who refers to Strunk & White as "a toxic little compendium of nonsense."
Ammon Shea: Yes.
Emily Brewster: Yes, and "grammarian," as in a linguist.
Peter Sokolowski: A linguist and professor of grammar and author of maybe the definitive grammar of the English language today but also someone who has a great flare.
Emily Brewster: Yeah, that's a fantastic quote. The reason that this essay, of course, has been promulgated and is the reason we are talking about it today is because people are still talking about it, because people still want guidance on how to write better. I am wondering, Ammon, as a writer, how do you think people should learn to write better? Putting aside, for a minute, the writers who think that they have all this advice to offer to the rest of us, how should people who want to improve their writing do so?
Ammon Shea: Read more. Read writers you like is the way to go about it. For me, one of the main issues with a lot of the standard writing books is even writers that we enjoy, like many people enjoy Stephen King, I think he has some fine characteristics in his writing. When he starts giving writing advice, he had this great passage where he talked about all the times you shouldn't use adverbs. People went through and found dozens and dozens of adverbs in the page that he was talking about, "you shouldn't use adverbs in your writing." It quickly became apparent that he didn't really know what an adverb was in a lot of cases. That kind of writing advice, I think, doesn't work.
Ammon Shea: Now, I know a number of other writers who have read Stephen King and talked about the way that they've been influenced by his writing, the ways that he develops plot, maybe his character development, any number of things, which he does phenomenally well. I think that's a great way to learn writing. If for nothing else, one of my biggest peeves about this kind of language writing is that almost inevitably it is focusing on the negative. Why when we hear people say, "Oh, I care about language," why is that so often synonymous with saying, "I like to talk trash about the way that other people use language"? Why, when people say, "I care about language and let me share with you some of the things that I think are really beautiful about it. These are some fine examples of well-turned phrases," why is that so infrequently something that we come across?
Ammon Shea: I think if you care about language, if you love language, you should be embracing the kind of delectability of it, the fine use of language. Look at some of the nice ones. There's so much beautiful language around us that I think we're really doing ourselves a disservice, not to mention the people who have to listen to us, but doing them a much greater disservice if all we do is focus on the negative.
Emily Brewster: That's totally true. But it's easier to point out the ugliness than it is to quote the sublime. There is gorgeous writing out there that can just be staggering. I think the other thing is that if you want to improve your writing, it's really nice to think that there are some distinct steps that you can take that will then result in you being an improved writer. That's really comforting and much simpler than read, read, read, read, read, read good writers, read over and over and over again, and identify things you really like, and then read something aloud that you have written and see how it feels.
Emily Brewster: Writing well is not about following distinct steps. It's about getting a feel for it. It is an art form. But the really tricky thing about it is that we all use language. Painters have paint as their territory. That's their medium. I don't even have to dabble in it. I mean I paint my bathroom, whatever. I don't have mastery, and I don't think that I have mastery of paint at all, and I don't need to. But as a speaker of English and as somebody who has to write an occasional email or whatever, even if I weren't a lexicographer, all of us, as native speakers, we use this tool, and then some people use it professionally. It's a very tricky territory. Some people use it artistically, and some people use it solely for jargon, and some people use it for political purposes. We need the language to do so much, and it does do all these different things.
Emily Brewster: To get really good at writing creatively or writing in a way that moves people or that convinces people, it feels like it should be simple because you know the tools, you know the words, you know the prepositions, you know the basic sentence structure. But to actually do it in a way that is compelling takes a lot of practice.
Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at [email protected]. You can also visit us at nepm.org. For the Word of the Day and all your general and dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.
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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — George Orwell — Politics and English Language by George Orwell
Politics and English Language by George Orwell
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Published: Jun 6, 2019
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“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell
Introduction, works cited.
In the essay, Politics and the English Language , Orwell portrays that politics and economics create certain writing standards while making expression vague with no intended meaning in words and repetition (362). In this case, paying substantial attention to the selection of suitable language forms can help avoid using extra words that confuse readers and distract them. Consequently, the main questions are ‘Do the ineffective usage of figurative language and vagueness make the articles confusing? Do the politicians take advantage of this trend? ’.
The answer to this question is affirmative since, in his work, Orwell shows that simplicity of the language is one of the vital characteristics of writing that reflects an actual explanation of the situation (357). Thus, writers have to consider returning to simple and detailed descriptions in their works, as this matter will make texts easy to understand and interesting to follow. Meanwhile, a new template pressured by politics should not be discovered as ideal, as figurative language and vagueness are usually used to change the opinion of the audience about problems. Reading The New York Times’ (NYT) article through this lens will help understand the true meaning of the publication and show that focusing on details and facts can make the article clear and concise and unveil its implicit meaning.
As it was mentioned previously, Orwell claims that expression of the modern English language tends to become worse, as current articles lack details, “precision”, and use the words that have no meaning (355). In this case, using these constructions confuse readers while transferring his/her attention from the implicit idea reflected in the text to unnecessary information. This intention is reasonable since it helps portray the issue from a different angle and manipulate the perception of the audience. In this case, metaphors and scientific words are used to persuade readers and “make lies sound truthful” (Orwell 367).
Nonetheless, these matters have to be avoided in academic writing, and writers have to show respect to readers by carefully selecting figurative language and using simple and short words. To understand the concepts of the proposed lens, Subway’s Slide in Performance Leaves Straphangers Fuming by Fitzsimmons was chosen for analysis. This publication focuses on the problem related to the issue with subway’s functioning and its overcrowding (Fitzsimmons). The article reflects different opinions about this issue, and the interviewer utilizes quotes from both authorities and people, who use the metro every day. Analyzing this article will help reflect reality, various viewpoints, and determine whether the selected lens can be applied in this context.
Based on the factors reflected above, it could be said that the main intention of this lens is to discover both implicit and explicit meaning of the article by illuminating unnecessary information and figurative language. Apart from the fact that this publication describes feelings of people and their discomfort when using the subway, it has clear political implications. It is apparent that this article attempts to change people’s opinions about the authority responsible for the problem by stating that Mayor Bill de Blasio is “mistakenly” blamed by society (Fitzsimmons).
Thus, Andrew Cuomo is the one, who has to be in control of the situation and propose an effective plan of action to improve the condition of the subway (Fitzsimmons). The article continues its description with the statement that Cuomo is aware of the issue and presents defensive arguments by claiming that it will take some time to find a solution (Fitzsimmons). In this case, the article can be discovered as a political instrument that has an intention to change their attitudes towards authorities. It is the original implicit meaning of the publication. Nonetheless, to gain respect and trust of readers, it is essential to present opinions of subway riders and portray these claims as an explicit and central goal of the article. Describing the authorities in one or two paragraphs makes the political context hidden and not apparent without the application of Orwell’s lens.
Nonetheless, to provide a clear rationale for the claims and suggestions mentioned above, it is essential to refer to the examples of the text. In the first place, Orwell indicates that critical characteristics of the language are clarity and simplicity of words (367). Thus, the selected article does not reflect this concept from the beginning. For example, its title “Subway’s Slide in Performance Leaves Straphangers Fuming” uses complicated words and figurative language such as “straphangers”, “performance” and “fuming” (Fitzsimmons). It remains apparent that the main heading has to be catchy and interest readers. Nonetheless, using these metaphors may be confusing since there are simple and short words that can replace them such as ‘daily traveler’, ‘upset’, ‘mad’ and ‘angry’. It could be said that the author of the article uses these language constructions to ensure that readers believe that the source is reliable and interesting to read. For a similar purpose, the author provides a variety of unnecessary facts from authorized sources and repetition such as presenting information about delays several times. A combination of these factors helps the writer make the explicit topic visible to the reader while skillfully hiding explicit political content.
Alternatively, Orwell indicates that there are many other characteristics that define the modern English language such as complicated words, archaisms, and scientific terms (367). The primary intentions of these instruments are to create an emotional bond with readers and persuade them that the publication is reliable. The examples of these ‘bad habits’ are clearly reflected in the selected NYT article. “Increasingly regularity”, “a torrent of complaints”, and “panacea” are only some examples presented in the text (Fitzsimmons). The first quotation is complicated and uses an uncommon combination of words, and its central goal can be referred to as adding a scientific meaning while making the article trust-worthy. Using figurative language as in the second quote distracts readers from the implicit content. As for “panacea”, this word plays a similar role as in the first example, as it helps build associations with scientific studies (Fitzsimmons). Overall, these tools are used to develop a trusting relationship with the audience and change their attitudes towards governmental authorities. Nonetheless, after this analysis, it is apparent that the publication is less concise and informative than it was originally presented.
The Orwell’s intentions, claims, and ideas had a reflection in the modern English language and chosen the NYT article. In this case, the author of the publication in The New York Times presented the issue with the subway by relying on vagueness, complicated words, and figurative language. Apparently, these instruments were used to build trusting relationships with readers and change their attitudes towards authorities. Nonetheless, apart from emphasizing an important regional issue, using these concepts help present hidden implicit political content and persuade the reader that the actions of the authorities are rational. Thus, reviewing this publication through this lens not only provided guiding principles for writing but also unveiled the actual meaning and mysteries of the articles presented in trusting sources such as the New York Times. Using the lens helps discover the world of writing and reveal the details that a hidden from ordinary people.
Fitzsimmons, Emma. “Subway’s Slide in Performance Leaves Straphangers Fuming.” The New York Times . 2017, Web.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Collected Essays , Martin Secker and Warburg LTD, 1968, pp. 353-367.
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Read the excerpt from "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. George Orwell’s purpose is to persuade readers to use simple language in political writing. How does he achieve this purpose in the excerpt? A. He gives an example of finding words to describe concrete items and abstract ideas. B. He gives an example of a writer who uses abstract words to describe a simple idea. C. He provides a quotation that uses abstract words to describe an idea. D. He provides a quotation that uses simple words to describe an idea.
A. He gives an example of finding words to describe concrete items and abstract ideas.
With the excerpt shown, he shows the reader that sometimes when talking about somethinh abstract it´s easier to start describing it from the begging, as many of the political issues are abstract and the ideas by those who adress the community are abstract as well a good search for words that won´t be miss-interpreted is highly recommended.
We can deduce here that George Orwell actually achieves the purpose in the excerpt in the following way: A. He gives an example of finding words to describe concrete items and abstract ideas.
What is author's purpose?
Author's purpose actually refer to the goal or objective which an author seeks to achieve at the end of the day. In other words, it reveals what the author wants the readers to learn from his/her book.
We can actually see here that option A shows how George Orwell achieves his purpose in the excerpt.
Learn more about author's purpose on https://brainly.com/question/545337
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