January 12, 2008

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity

Essential reading for everyone, especially those interested in language and literature: George Orwell's 1946 essay: Politics and the English Language. It was apparently written when Animal Farm had just been completed and Nineteen Eighty-Four was a preliminary manuscript - approximately at the same time as his other essay, The Prevention of Literature, which also concerns itself with truth and the use of language.

I have not read either essays yet but will get around to it sometime this month. For now, just one quote from the essay (I am sure it is full of quotable quotes -- like I said: essential reading in its entirety):
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin 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." 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.
And thanks to wikipedia, here are the six rules that Orwell thought will help writers avoid most of the errors in the examples of poor writing he talks about in his essay.
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Speaking of essays, I just started reading The Best American Essays 2007 last night -- so far, just the Foreword and bits of the long-winded introduction by the issue editor, David Foster Wallace... so more about any interesting essays from the book later.

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