Monday, May 9, 2022

Word Matters on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

I like what George Orwell says about language. I think of him as an ally, not an enemy. Thus the recent discussion of the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” on the Merriam-Webster podcast Word Matters (transcript here) disappoints me. All three M-W editors — Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski — weigh in against the essay, with Shea leading the way. It’s “a bad piece of writing,” he says, the work of a writer who doesn’t understand “how language works” and has “no business” writing about it. Sokolowski pitches in: “All [Orwell] really is doing is listing his peeves.” Brewster, who begins by saying that she can defend at least some elements in the essay, ends up going along with her fellow editors.

The spirit of Geoffrey Pullum hovers over the discussion, which is to say that the M-W editors, like Pullum, take a celebrated work about writing and avow that it’s worthless. It’s no coincidence that The Elements of Style, Pullum’s favorite target, should make its way into the discussion, with Shea calling it “a horrible dated document that should be burned in a trash heap,” and Sokolowski approvingly offering a near-quotation from Pullum: “a toxic little compendium of nonsense.”

But as with Pullum’s examination of The Elements of Style, this examination of “Politics and the English Language” distorts what Orwell says. Contra Shea, Orwell doesn’t say that one can never use long words. Contra Shea, Orwell doesn’t say that one can never use the passive voice, only that one shouldn’t use it when one can use the active voice.¹ It may be true that Orwell uses the passive voice in a fifth of the sentences in this essay, a point that Shea likely gleaned from page 720 of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, but page 720 also points out that Orwell’s uses of the passive are wholly appropriate. And contra Shea, Orwell doesn’t contradict himself by using metaphors and similes, because Orwell doesn’t prohibit the use of metaphors and similes. (How could he?) He cautions only against using those that are already familiar from print.² Orwell’s own comparisons by contrast are original and vivid: “outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page”; “an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink”; “one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

When the M-W editors are not distorting, they’re dismissing, asserting with confidence that Orwell’s “rules” (that’s Orwell’s word) won’t help anyone become a better writer. Here are the rules, which Orwell says will cover “most cases”:

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 active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
That’s the kind of advice that teachers of writing have long given to students to counter cliché, clutter, and pomposity. The M-W editors’ insistence that there are no “steps” one can follow to become a better writer is unpersuasive: while there are no steps that one can follow to a finish line, there are things that a writer can do, again and again, to improve a piece of writing sentence by sentence.³ And there are overarching questions that Orwell suggests a scrupulous writer bear in mind:
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 ugly?⁴
The M-W editors’ distortions and dismissals dismay me, but I find greater fault with their failure to address Orwell’s consideration of political language. Orwell indeed sees an English in decline, but he’s not carping about, as Sokolowski puts it, “kids today”: Orwell is writing about the debasement of language in high places. And unlike a typical declinist, he thinks that each of us can do our bit to reverse decline by getting rid of bad language habits and thinking more clearly. It’s astonishing to me that the M-W editors make no space for a consideration of, say, the insidious euphemism of enhanced interrogation techniques or special military operation, or the genteel dishonesty of alternative facts. Nor do the editors discuss what seems (to me) the great weakness of Orwell’s argument: its failure to acknowledge that plain language, too, can serve toxic political ends. Lock her up is clearly barbarous.

Scrupulous or even cursory reading of “Politics and the English Language” reveals, again and again, that the Merriam-Webster editors’ criticisms of the essay have no basis in the essay. Orwell deserves better than he got in this podcast.

Related reading
All OCA Orwell posts (Pinboard) : Couric and Palin and Orwell (One of the most widely read posts on my blog)

¹ I take Orwell’s meaning to be that one should use the passive voice when the active voice is inappropriate: “I was born in Brooklyn,” not “My mother gave birth to me in Brooklyn.” Similarly, one should not use a long word when a short one will do. When a long one is appropriate, a short one won’t do. Orwell’s advice to cut words that can be cut should be read as a suggestion to write, say, now instead of at this particular moment in time, not as a suggestion to sacrifice detail.

² I’m reminded of Pullum’s extraordinary claim that The Elements of Style prohibits the use of adjectives and adverbs.

³ Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method (Revising Prose (2007), and outlined here) is one example. The mental or written notes that writers make about things to watch for in their work — e.g., “Avoid ‘this’ alone”; “Check on ‘if’ and ‘whether’ — are others.

⁴ Merriam-Webster’s definitions of scrupulous: “having moral integrity,” “acting in strict regard for what is considered right or proper,” “punctiliously exact,” “painstaking.” I think of care in writing as a moral imperative, even if I still make typos.

[This post is for my friend Stefan Hagemann.]

comments: 7

Stefan said...

Much appreciated, Michael! I finally made it through the transcript, but reading it did not improve the discussion. I hope you do (or did) send the M-W editors a link.

Michael Leddy said...

I did. No reply yet.

Joe DiBiase said...

I haven't previously listened to "Word Matters." I listened to the episode about Orwell's essay. Then I reviewed the titles of some of their other episodes, which all seem to be about individual words and phrases, but not writing in general. An analogy came to mind: the lexicographers were like bricklayers criticizing the architect or builder. Experts on the smallest component of a structure, believing that their expertise extended to the whole structure.

I also listened to their "Clarification" episode where they disputed the purposeful insertion of mountweazels (fake words that are intended as copyright traps) into dictionaries. I know that mapmakers (at least used to) include fake places in their maps as copyright traps.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re right — the emphasis on writing is unusual for them. I will happily admit that I don’t think being a grammarian or linguist means that someone is equipped to give good advice about writing. Most writers are neither grammarians nor linguists.

There’s a podcast somewhere about fake locations on maps, with at least one place name that ended up becoming real. If I can remember where I heard it, I’ll report back.

(I thought I left a reply hours ago. For some reason it didn’t go through.)

Joe DiBiase said...

I think you're referring to Agloe, New York.

Michael Leddy said...

Now that it’s not 10:12 p.m.: “I don’t think being a grammarian or linguist means that someone is necessarily equipped to give good advice about writing.”

Here’s a start on mountweazels, from Jack Lynch: “Ghost Words and Mountweazels.”

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, that must be the one — thanks, Joe. There’s a space at the end of the link, so for anyone who wants to read about Agloe, just delete the space.

I don’t know why I didn’t see your comment earlier, Joe.