Peeving enfeebled?

« previous post | next post »

A few days ago at the Guardian, David Marsh brought out the stuffed body of George Orwell and propped it up in the pulpit ("Election 2010 – vote for the cliche you hate the most", 4/9/2010):

George Orwell, in his brilliant 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, wrote: "When one watches some tired [political] hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy." He memorably argued that "if thought corrupts language, language can often corrupt thought" and proposed six rules of good writing:

• 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.

The result was shocking.

Four days later, there are only 83 comments. I'm used to seeing hundreds or thousands of comments in response to invitations of this kind.  And none of the comments called for cutting off tongues or fingers.

Perhaps this is because current political rhetoric in Britain is too derivative and impoverished, even in its clichés, to arouse much feeling. Or perhaps, the springs of British linguistic peeving might be drying up. In fact, several of the 83 comments questioned Orwell's rules.

But it seems that 83 is actually a large number of comments in the Guardian's current blog ecology, where yesterday's blog posts have so far gotten 1, 14, 0, 43, 0, 0, 0, 6, 2, 71, 1, … responses.

As for those rules, here are some past LL posts about aspects of Politics and the English Language:

"Orwell's Liar", 1/10/2009
"A load of old Orwellian cobblers from Fisk", 8/31/2008
"Dong!", 8/9/2006
"When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006
"Passive aggression", 7/18/2006
"Fed up with 'fed up'?", 3/4/2004
"Clichés, stereotypes and other obsolete metaphors", 3/15/2004



18 Comments

  1. Jan Freeman said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    You may be on to something. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph tried to stoke outrage with a column on "creeping Americanisms" and drew only 83 comments. A week or so before that, they had tried with "Spell-checkers are creating a tidal wave of illiteracy" and lured only 61. And I notice that several commenters in the Guardian crop are skeptical of Orwell's authority. On the other hand, it could be that their readers are just temporarily distracted by politics and will get back to full-throated peeving when things calm down.

  2. Andrew F said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 3:42 am

    83 is not that large a number of Guardian comments. Columns that push more effective buttons can reach into the hundreds; a recent piece on environmentalist James Lovelock is at 910.

  3. Sili said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    And it's not Comment is Free.

    I think it's odd that they keep fapping over that essay instead of quoting directly from the novel. Newspeak with is quacking is a much better idea to steal.

  4. Army1987 said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    The presence of the sixth rule makes Orwell's advice excellent.

  5. language hat said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    If by "excellent" you mean "not as insane as it might at first sound."

    [(myl) Or if you mean "an ingenious re-creation of the liar's paradox"...]

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    The blog is hidden. Marsh announced it on Comment is Free (which is the main Guardian blog site), but as it doesn't appear there most people don't know about it.

    I've referred some of Marsh's postings to Geoff before and he's made a post on LL. Even the usual culprits aren't there.

    The fun is really going to come when he tries to justify the Guardian's woefully amateur style guide.

  7. Mr Punch said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    George Orwell was a good writer; not only was he entitled to his opinions on how to write well, but those opinions are of continuing interest to many people. It's possible to disagree with him as a matter of emphasis, but nobody is going to argue the opposite points: "If it is possible to put another word in, always add it." He's offering advice, not prescription.

    E.B. White was also a good writer, of course, but his little book began life as a classroom text, and has been so used for more than half a century. I suspect that it would not arouse such vociferous reaction had it not been overtly prescriptive.

  8. Ken Grabach said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    I see nothing objectionable in Mr Orwell's 6 rules, even with the contradiction of number 6.

  9. parvomagnus said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    The sixth rule seems to allow for the moderately barbarous, or perhaps the stealthily barbarous. A more vigorous application of rule 3 might even have elided the "outright".

  10. parvomagnus said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Sorry sorry; "cut out"… :)

  11. Lane said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    This is obviously a sign of the decline of our very ability to think, after long corruption by flabby cliche and murderous euphemism. I love Big Brother.

    Is it ironic, or just funny, that it is utterly cliche to trot out "Politics and the English Language" for virtually any reason anymore?

  12. Private Zydeco said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Any tract that flagrantly invites more sensible alternatives to its own
    didactic preposessions has to have a good moral.

  13. Army1987 said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Re. "an ingenious re-creation of the liar's paradox", I take the point of rule 6 to be "Do not take these rules very seriously, including this one", rather than anything like the literal meaning. So it's closer to "I am joking" than to "I am lying" in paradoxicalness.
    (What? "paradoxicalness" already exists? I never manage to surprise my spell checker…)

  14. chris said,

    April 15, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    These rules are a great example of nerdview: if you know enough about good writing to be able to apply them, then you don't need them (with the possible exception of the first, which is overzealous, but at least well-defined).

    Assuming, of course, that Orwell didn't deliberately have his tongue in cheek, but if so, it sure seems like a lot of people missed the joke.

  15. daves said,

    April 16, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    Some thoughts on 'Politics and the English Language' (long post ahoy):

    Like many people on here, I rate Orwell as a novelist, but not so much as a language maven. It does seem that some folks conflate the two: 1984 was a great book, therefore don't use passives.

    One of the criticisms of 'Politics and the English Language' is that Orwell violates many of his own edicts (the Passive Aggression post linked above breaks down the number of passives he uses himself in PEL). He also cherry-picks his data, and presents a parody of a quote at one point ('Here it is in modern English…').

    You can't help but notice that he doesn't really follow his own rules (passives, long and borrowed words, long sentences), which on face value makes him either a hypocrite or clueless in terms of his own usage – either way, we wonder if we can take him seriously. I think that might be the point.

    One of the great themes of Orwell's fiction is illegitimacy and corruption of power: the abuse of authority. As the writer, he's in a position of power over his audience. By making bold assertions about the rules of English, then violating them, he challenges us to question that power. Who is this guy to be telling us how to write? Isn't he just making it all up as he goes? Just as the pigs in Animal Farm have no real legitimacy to be issuing orders in the name of equality, Orwell has no business telling us not to use passives. Taking him at face value is similar to 'we've always been at war with Eurasia': 'the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active' and so on.

    I don't think he's entirely playing devil's advocate: clearly, he feels strongly on the matter of political language, and wanted the quality of discourse to improve. He's killing two birds with one stone. There are two outcomes to reading PEL:

    – You believe all or most of what he says, accepting his authority as a 'great writer'. He's using 'political' writing (unfounded assertions etc) to manipulate people, but in order to make them think about writing style a bit more than they otherwise would.

    – You read it and think, 'but he breaks his own rules!', thereby questioning his authority on the matter. You may or may not agree that the state of discourse isn't great, but recognise he's using 'political' methods to get his point across, and you see how they work and how convincing they can be.

    That's how I interpret PEL. This lets me square Orwell the outstanding novelist with Orwell the clueless prescriptivist. I don't think he can possibly have reread PEL without noticing how often he broke his own rules, so I have to conclude that it's deliberate. The point he's making is consistent with his other work: how can we be sure those in power are telling us the truth?

    PEL is actually satire!

  16. chris said,

    April 16, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    I don't think he can possibly have reread PEL without noticing how often he broke his own rules

    Why not? Strunk and many others did.

    Prescriptivists not seeing the beams in their own eyes are as old as prescriptivism itself. It would be funnier if obliviousness didn't spring eternal. (It's still sort of funny, but also sort of sad, IMO.)

  17. Mark P said,

    April 17, 2010 @ 1:42 am

    It's possible to disagree with him as a matter of emphasis, but nobody is going to argue the opposite points: "If it is possible to put another word in, always add it."

    No, that's not the opposite. The opposite would be "never put in an unnecessary word".

    That would reduce most communication to the level of report writing. In fact, I think his advice is excellent for writing reports, technical essays or scholarly comments. Put in only what is needed, in plain English, unless some embellishment is actually required.

    In terms of any other writing – novels, informal letters, magazine articles, blogs- it is just plain nonsense.

    He's offering advice, not prescription.

    Well, yes. But so is everyone, short of a judge or policeman. This does not get round the fact that is it not very useful "advice".

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    April 17, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    @daves: my eleventh grade english teacher had a classic "question authority" bumper sticker tacked to one of her bulletin boards, modified to read "question literary authority".

RSS feed for comments on this post