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Something notable for your perusal
Russell Degnan

The other day I picked up a copy of George Orwell's Essays (an hour to kill and a bookstore is always a recipe for spending for me). Now, obviously some of them are interesting, but one in particular is well known, and for good reason. That is his "Politics and the English Language".

Like all great factual pieces it is basically a rant. In this case, against bad habits when writing, which we all make, but which (in those days) he felt were becoming increasingly common. What strikes me is how commonly it occurs in the interminable readings we are subjected to for Policy. Yeatman, Bashevkin, Squires, Carabine, Bacchi ... need I go on?


Orwell characterised them very well:

"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is stateless of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing."

More succinctly: if it isn't immediately obvious what you are saying, you are either a bad writer, or you're talking shit. Or both, and one of Orwell's points is that they tend to go together. Now, eventually it is possible to fathom the meaning of the essays we've been given; but the need to work at it dillutes the message. The fact that that message is often needlessly repeated, or buried under mountains of irrelevant, meaningless prose makes me suspect that Orwell is onto something.

But, Orwell wasn't merely a complainer, he had some good advice as well; and, since we have to write essays ourselves now, and in the future, they are worth repeating.

"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably long?"

[...]

"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. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meanings as clear as one can through pictures or sensations."

[...]

I think the following rules will cover most cases:
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."

Nevertheless, read the whole thing.

General 18th September, 2003 01:21:15   [#] 

Comments

HA!
Russell, there is a reason why nobody wrote in this space before me. Lets get all of our attention back to planning and nothing else. We should think about it 24/7 and then discuss it on the internet. Bye Bye for now.
Anthony  24th September, 2003 20:29:30  


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