Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

On Orwell’s Politics and the English Language

writing, language

I was pointed to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay by an internet comment about technical writing.

It’s a fascinating piece and totally not what I was expecting (though the title should have given it away).

Orwell’s advice goes against everything I was taught about how to write correct English. We were told to use phrases in favour of simple words, prefer the passive voice and words of Greek and Latin origin.

This was going on at my high school, the university and more recently, in the English courses I attended at work, so while not a representative sample, I’ve received the same advice from multiple English lectors with different backgrounds.

If you want to use the language correctly, you’re supposed to use foreign words, passives and phrasal verbs.

Orwell says fuck all that. Trying to undrestand why these two completely opposing advices exist was quite interesting.

His argument seems right to me. Politics is very muddy and so is its language. We even have a phrase about that: when you get a “political answer”, the speaker is being vague, not actually replying to your question and committing to nothing. All the language elements Orwell criticises make what you’re saying more vague and harder to understand.

Using a “not un-” or the passive voice doesn’t add or change the information content of what you’re saying, but it makes it harder to decode for the receiver.

If you want to transmit your ideas as clearly as possible – if you want the other side to actually understand what you are thinking – you have to be drop all the fluff and just focus on what you want to convey.

Which is why I’ve seen this linked in a tech discussion even though the essay is about language in politics. Everything Orwell criticises can be directly used in technical writing.

So yeah, his advice is correct and English teachers be damned.

But these fluffy bits do have purpose. They alter the transmitted information. Just not what is said, but how it’s (supposed to be) received.

Using a more complicated version does make one appear to belong to a higher class and be more intelligent. One obviously needs to have a wider vocabulary to keep track of all the phrases and foreign words. And people involved with politics (and therefore using this fluffy language) are usually considered to have high social status.

And even if you don’t want try to inflate your class, if you do have a political message you want to spread, you’ll adopt the language because that’s how everyone does it.

Which is why I think English lectors encourage this. People do percieve the fluffy language as educated, etc. and therefore that’s the language you want to learn to use. Too bad it sucks for actual communication.

See also Pygmalion (though that is more about phonetics than language, the message is similar).

oh and btw avoiding this bullshit in writing is so fucking hard, jesus

PS: Orwell is making a stronger claim than I present here: that the use of this (or any other) kind of language actually affects speaker’s thoughts. He presents the same idea in Nineteen-Eighty Four. I didn’t comment on that because that’s more of a neurological claim, I’ve heard of evidence to the contrary and I just don’t know enough. The rest of his point stands either way.

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