Duck Duck Book

21 – politics and the english language
07.7.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles, language, literature

"Politics and the English language" / George Orwell, from volume 4 of the book: The collected essays, journalism, and letters of George Orwell / Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1968].
[MCL call number: 828 O79c; two copies (of volume 4), no holds — ask the library staff for help if you want to put volume four on hold, there’s a trick to it]

Everyone, it seems, complains about the decline of the English language.  Careless writers continually split infinitives, they put prepositions at the ends of clauses, they use too many acronyms, they indulge themselves with jargon, and in general they express themselves in ways that are, well, not totally easy to understand.  It's unconscionable.  At this very moment, parents and politicians and teachers and writers of newspaper editorials and the clergy are complaining bitterly about the sad state of our poor language — authority figures everywhere are wringing their hands.

But George Orwell, himself famous for clear, expressive prose, is here to do something about it.  (Actually, he was on the job quite a long time ago, as this essay was first published in 1946.)  What, indeed, is really wrong with the way people write?  As Orwell explains:

"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."

Orwell considers five passages taken from contemporary (c. 1946) writing, and provides a brief analysis of the different kinds of problems he sees in these five passages and in writing in general.  Orwell's brief but effective plunge into the wilds of messy, confusing prose is instructional, amusing but also sobering, and generally a very good idea for anyone who plans to write anything explaining anything to anyone ever. 

So you can see I recommend it. 

N.b.: This essay was originally printed in the magazine Horizon (April 1946).  Multnomah County Library has back issues of Horizon, but not this one.  "Politics and the English Language" has been reprinted in several other volumes of Orwell's work, including the following: A Collection of Essays (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1954), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (San Diego : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, [1984], c1950), and The Orwell Reader (New York, Harcourt, Brace [1956]).

It is also available online in full text in several places (though I haven't checked through them to see if they're all complete and good good): 1, 2, 3, 4, and there is a Russian translation.


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