Orwell on clarity

George Orwell is known for his fiction, but Politics and the English Language is my favorite of his writings. This essay should be read by all. In addition to highlighting my own incompetence as a writer, Orwell shows how stale imagery and vagueness are used to deceive others.

Both major political parties do it. Hazy-speak is at least 95% of all political communication; the best way to lose an election is to directly state your intentions. And so listening to politicians is a tedious exercise in deciphering code. A favorite example was Bill Clinton’s 1992 announcement of a “New Covenant,” which he called “a solemn agreement between the people and their government based not simply on what each of us can take but what all of us must give to our Nation.” Translation: fork it over.

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

Orwell’s observations about “tacked together phrases” and Strunk&White’s famous epigram (“Omit needless words!”) ring in my ears louder than my ability to silence them. It is an ongoing struggle to be clear, to edit away. Clarity is a headache, but muddled thoughts betray a lazy lack of understanding. Generally you understand something when you can explain it so that others understand it. If you can’t, then the roast needs more time in the oven before it is ready to serve.

The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases ā€¯bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder” one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine… This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases… can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

A warning to those who have not read this essay before: It may infect you for life. You may find yourself recalling its words often, perhaps while watching political hacks argue on TV, or listening to a company presentation, or reading a mission statement.

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