George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is often praised by proponents of plain writing because it highlights one of the big causes of unclear writing: vague language, specifically, the vague language used in politics to brainwash or confuse people in order to gain their trust. Even though Orwell wrote this in 1946, his message is always relevant because we’ll always have politicians trying to coerce the public to think the way they do. Everyone who writes should read “Politics and the English Language.” To help you achieve that goal, here are the first two paragraphs of the essay and, at the end, a link that will take you to the rest of it:
The English Language Is in Decline, Kind of
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.
Yes, We Can Fix the Problem
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.
To read these five specimens and the rest of Orwell’s essay, click here.
- Half of all Americans live within 50 miles of their birthplace.
- A bowling pin need only tilt 7.5 degrees in order to fall down.
- Assuming Rudolph was in front, there are 40,320 ways to arrange the other eight reindeer.
- The launching mechanism of a carrier ship that helps planes to take off, could throw a pickup truck over a mile.
- What was the original name of the web search engine known today as Google: SearchMe, MorningStar, BackRub, TreasureHunt? (Fun Facts Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Word of the Month
imperturbable | im-per-TER-bah-bull | adjective
• marked by extreme calm and steadiness; serene
“Though many angry people in the meeting hurled accusations at Keith, he remained imperturbable.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to learn about the wild and wacky graveside traditions held at the graves of ten famous people, from Oscar Wilde to Elvis Presley.
Click here to see truly incredible “edible art” designed by an artist using raw fish and other edible ingredients.
American Express, Amgen, Census Bureau, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, Food & Drug Administration, U.S. Navy SEALs
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Fill in the blank with the word that completes the meaning of the sentence.
The archaeologist enjoyed the ____ life she led while gathering artifacts; she never stayed at any one site long enough to get bored.
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Deadline is currently almost exclusively used to mean a time by which a task must be accomplished, but this was not always the case. In the past, deadline had a variety of meanings, all related to a boundary for which there was a severe penalty for crossing. The oldest of these uses dates to the American Civil War and refers to a line drawn around a military prison outside of which a prisoner could be shot, a literal “dead” line. Here is one example from the Congressional Record of January, 12 1864: “The dead line, beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.”
Dr. Kevin Ryan's business-writing book is available on Amazon.com and qualifies for free shipping.
Answer: To move from place to place is to be nomadic.
Fun Facts Answer
BackRub, in 1996. The name was based on the search engine’s ability to analyze the back links pointing to a website
Past Writing Tips
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