Orwell's Liar

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Orwell's Politics and the English Language is a beautifully written language crime, though it pretends to lay down the law. Furthermore I just noticed that its final law is rather curious. We'll get to that shortly.

Orwell begins with the unjustified premise that language is in decline – unjustified because while he viciously attacks contemporary cases of poor writing, he provides no evidence that earlier times had been perennially populated by paragons of literary virtue. He proceeds to shore up the declining language with style suggestions that, regrettably enough, have never turned a Dan Brown into a George Orwell.  

Customers who buy into Orwell's shit also buy Strunk and White, and further milquetoast simulacra of one or the other, so it's worth looking more closely at what he proposes. Let's start off in time honored Language Log style, by seeing how Orwell breaks his own rules. Showing a lack of imagination that would be worthy of someone who lacked imagination, Orwell suggests the following rule, his fourth rule, a rule that in various forms has been heard many times both before and since. Verily shall I yawn unto you Orwell's unoriginal original (c.f. this discussion of how it predates Orwell):

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Are you still awake? Then get this, his third rule: 

 If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 

And wouldn't you know it, the very first sentence of Orwell's essay runs:

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.

So, Orwell writes "it is generally assumed", which is passive. Why didn't he say "people generally assume", or "we generally assume", both of which are perfectly grammatical, are one word shorter, and are not passive? Answer: because the passive is slightly better here. But why? And how could rules like Orwell's possibly help someone who didn't already know which version was better find out? I wish I could write like Orwell. But his injunctions don't help. In fact, they cry out for him to be hoisted by his own pedantry and held up to public ridicule. 

Let's move to his first rule "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print"? Yet we only need to read as far as the second sentence of his essay to see him talk of the "collapse" of civilization. That would be a literal collapse would it? 

His second rule is "Never use a long word where a short one will do." The question of whether a short word will do is subjective, but one of my favorite aspects of Orwell's writing is his free use of long words where short ones would have done. When he says "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions…" could he have used the shorter "careful" instead of "scrupulous"? Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?

If longer words generally have slightly different meanings to shorter ones, then surely the right injunction is to use a word which means what you want to say, regardless of length. Orwell himself says:  "let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around." Quite. But then, why do we need a rule that's based on the length of the word and not its meaning? Isn't it imprecision of language that Orwell really objects to, the fact that poor writers settle for words that will do, instead of using words that fit?

The same criticism applies to his fifth rule: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." Orwell again misses the mark, to my mind. Sure, people occasionally show off with big words, Greek words, French words, and technical terms. (I blush.) But an occasional display of grandiloquence, or of in-group language, is hardly a crime, and it certainly isn't evidence for the decline of language. Our use of big, Greek, French, or technical words is only a problem if we don't say what we mean, or if our intended audience can't understand us. 

OK, fine. Orwell's rules were never likely to rescue the English language, whether it needed to be resued or not. But I promised you a particularly curious rule. Here it is, Orwell's sixth and final rule, and a very sensible and pragmatic sort of a rule it might appear at first, though I will suggest that it is even more useless and peculiar than the others:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By intent, this is a meta-rule saying that the rules should be taken as defaults. Now, with the other rules, it's clear what it would mean to obey them, and what it would mean to break them. But here's my question: is it possible to break Orwell's sixth rule, in the form that he wrote it?  

To break the rule, you'd have to fail to do the following: break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous. Now, to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous, you'd have to be breaking a rule, right? So, if "break any" is interpreted as "break at least one" in Orwell's sixth rule, the way to fail to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous would be not to break any rules, and to say something outright barbarous. Let us assume that you are breaking the sixth rule itself. Then a fortiori (pardon my Latin) you can't be failing to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous. Which means, contra assumption, that you aren't breaking the rule after all. Doh!

What's the point in a rule for which it's impossible to know whether you're breaking it? Or maybe that's the best sort of rule? If only I was better at Doublethink

 

ps. The semantically minded among you may be able to come up with an interpretation of Orwell's rule which is saner than the one I adopted, by taking "any" to be a wide scope universal. In that case Orwell's rule is ambiguous rather than mad. I'll leave you to puzzle it out.

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  1. Tim said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 2:17 am

    I guess I would interpret "these rules" in rule 6 to mean "the preceding rules", but that would detract from the snark, so I'll refrain.

    It occurs to me that, if we were to take "never use a long word where a short one will do" at face value, we should go ahead and remove from the language any words which have synonyms shorter than themselves. That seems like an inappropriate suggestion from the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    And one other point : "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." You mean like the word "out" (used twice) in that sentence?

  2. Cihan said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 3:58 am

    I used to like this essay very much but after becoming a Language Log reader, my passion has sort of cooled off.

    David Beaver makes valid, critical points but on the other hand, I think the essay has true insights about political language as well. For instance, I agree with Orwell in that vagueness is a tool that those with shocking immoral agendas use in political discourse to obscure their meaning and thus to appear more acceptable. Perhaps, his prescriptions are off the mark but his diagnoses of the political language are more worthy.

    Also, concerning third rule ("If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out."), I have always wondered why the title isn't "Politics and English" as opposed to "Politics and the English Language". Can't you cut out "Language"? Hence, he is not following his own rule once again?

  3. Ian Preston said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    And one other point : "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." You mean like the word "out" (used twice) in that sentence?

    Then cut "always"? He doesn't mean "always" anyway; see rule 6.

    Given rule 2 on long and short words, "If it is possible to cut …" could then be reduced to "if you can cut …"

  4. Greg Kochanski said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:46 am

    Whoa! Don't beat on Strunk and White. Despite the fact it will not make you a good writer, it will at least lead to you output being relatively short and easy to read.

    If you're a bad writer, the shorter the better.

    If you're a wooly thinker, it is best if you cannot hide your confusion behind a screen of lexical obfuscation. Write simply so your reader may be able to figure out that you don't know what you are talking about.

    So, Strunk and White is a benefit to society, even if it isn't a magic bullet.

  5. David Barnes said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    I find Orwell's essay useful when dealing with politics on any level, whether it's the rocket attacks in Gaza or trying to organize a community fun run — when there are disagreements, people turn to linguistic tricks to obscure their meaning.

    It isn't an essay about language. It's an essay about politics, and how language can be misused as a political tool. It won't help you write Animal Farm but it does give you a BS filter so that your statements are clear, honest, and direct.

    Oh and in case any of you who read Language Log haven't read the original essay, here's a link: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

    [I actually agree that Orwell's essay can be useful when dealing with politics. And re. your claim that Orwell's essay "isn't an essay about language. It's an essay about politics", certainly the essay title seems to indicate that. But only 2 of the 5 examples he chooses are overtly political, and the essay as a whole seems to concentrate more on general issues with perceived language decline than specifically political language. I don't see any evidence that e.g. over use of passives is a problem with political language. And for that matter, I don't see any evidence that a big problem with political language is a failure to realize that style rules are defaults. No, if these were problems at all (which they aren't) they would be general problems, not specific to political discourse.

    Perhaps more important, while politicians use language in devious ways, and while it is good for us proles to be aware of that, I don't know whether there is any empirical way to gauge Orwell's suggestion that there has been a long-term decline in the precision and liveliness of political language. For every bad or misleading speaker you can name in any period, you can probably name someone you regard as a good speaker.

    Some of the political language Orwell objected to in his own time was dressed up in the trappings of Marxist ideology, and used deceptively. But what's the empirical evidence that the language of the time was less sincere, less clear, or less vibrant than the language of the crusades half a millennium earlier? And is the language of Bush better or worse? Answers on a postcard.
    - David Beaver

    ps. Sorry. I meant to include a link to Orwell's original essay and forgot to. I've now added a link in the main text of the posting.]

  6. GBM said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    Horror of horrors! Orwell wrote something that wasn't strictly consistent! Nor could it be followed literally.

    Thank god we only use language those ways. What could Orwell have been thinking?

  7. BGBjr said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    Or: "Cut any word you can."

    Short words? Check! Anything extraneous? Nope! Passive voice? Avoided!

    Wow — it's easy and fun!

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 8:01 am

    Greg Kochanski: Whoa! Don't beat on Strunk and White.

    Too late, by 150 posts or so.

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    BGBjr:

    "Cut words whenever possible" is one word shorter (though two syllables longer).

    Is it just me, or is the sentence "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out" in fact amusingly long-winded? It's really not that different from "If it is possible to cut a word out, then you should make sure to cut that word out."

    So yes, a lot of these "rules" about cutting words, or avoiding the passive, or avoiding polysyllabic or jargony words, are of dubious helpfulness. Nevertheless, I think Orwell has some interesting things to say about people hiding political agendas (consciously or unconsciously) behind euphemisms, and about how people can, through cliches and abstraction, produce streams of prose that don't actually say very much.

  10. Dan said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 10:32 am

    It's highly entertaining to see an insect crawling over the thoughts of a genius. Orwell's rules will last a lot longer than the inane nitpcking of this blogger.

    If you wish to communicate effectively and be easily understood, Orwell's ideas remain as powerful today as they did 60 odd years ago when he first came up with them.

    Language is not an exact science so all rules of writing are meant to be broken from time to time. In his final rule Orwell himself makes that clear. Bearing that in mind, this blog is doing little more than validating Orwell's final rule.

    [I find your description of me as an insect and as an inane nitpicker insulting. (A little confusing too - am I a nit, or nit picker?) But more important, geniuses often make mistakes, and sometimes a little insect might spot them. So while it's true that Orwell's rules, and the rest of his canon, will continue to be more widely read than anything I ever write, I've tried to give readers of Language Log a contrary view of the genius. The readers can make their own minds up.

    Re. your final comment, observing that rules are meant to be broken doesn't sound to me like the insight of a genius. And does the blog indeed do little more than validating this obvious thought? Again, I'm happy to let readers make their own minds up.
    - David Beaver
    ]

  11. peter said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Rule 5: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

    But what, in a language as mixed as English, can an "English equivalent" possibly mean? Are we to forego use of all words derived from French? From Latin? From Greek? From German? Surely, somewhat late, Mr Orwell, for closing that particular stable door, even were it desirable.

    And why should it ever be desirable to use an impoverished, pared-down, out-of-date language? This rule is the ranting of an anti-modern, anti-urban ascetic, living a life of rural poverty and isolation — indeed, similar in many ways to that of life in England before it was civilized by Rome.

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    "life in England before it was civilized by Rome"

    England wasn't England until after the Romans left – the "English" came from somewhere else.

  13. Rico said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    I hear you, Dan. It's one thing to write a critique, but this post comes off as rude, hectoring, and smug. It's the work of a jackal assaulting Orwell's corpse only because he knows the lions around here have already taken him down.

    [Why more insults? An insect, an inane nit picker, and now a rude, smug, hectoring jackal? I would take this comment down, but instead, I'm leaving it here as an example of what we're not looking for in the comments thread: sequences of opinions and insults with no substance or evidence.

    What we are looking for is reasoned argument and references that we've missed or are unaware of.
    - If you want to say specifically that you can see a flaw in an argument I've given, then go ahead. State the flaw.
    - If you want to say that a phrase I've used (like "Orwell's shit") is unjustified and offensive to you, then go ahead, and explain why it is unjustified.
    - If you want to point out that the post is unoriginal, then go ahead and cite the prior work that makes the same point, especially if it makes it better than I did.

    If you can't do any of these things, and can't increase our understanding or knowledge of the issues under discussion, please don't comment at all.
    - David Beaver]

  14. jean-pierre metereau said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    Fortunately, I am old enough to know that all my heroes are deficient in some respect, and I learned something from Orwell's grudging appreciation of Gandhi. Like Cihan, I used to love Orwell's essay, so much that I wound up reading the four-volume set of his published work and all his novels. Orwell didn't examine every aspect of his life with the rigor he applied to his political beliefs, hence his disturbing sexism, racism, and prescriptivist notions. But I will continue to consider Orwell one of my heroes for his constant struggle to maintain his integrity and his awareness that he could be mistaken. I still teach Politics and the English Language–critical thinking is most engaged when one applies it to something one agrees with. (Lord, did I just end a sentence with a preposition?)

  15. figleaf said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    I dunno, being neither a politician or a linguist and certainly not a very good writer I think Orwell may seem inconsistent or dictatorial today because he made his point… back whenever it was he wrote that.

    Not that his point has been *fully* made (Ronald Reagan's infamous "mistakes were made" is the very model of application of rules two, three, and five but rule four was a shrill beacon calling a drumbeat against politicians who say things like… "mistakes were made") but *because* Orwell's essay made it's (political) point I was able to recognize Reagan's sentence not only as use of a (grammaticaly) passive form but also a (politically) passive form deliberately chosen in order to avoid acknowledging that he ought to resign.

    In other words I'm with David Barnes on the real utility of the essay. It wasn't that his rules point out *wrong* English. It's just that politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, and whatever they called marketers back then used (syntactically) perfectly valid English sentences to featherbed, obscure, fudge, and otherwise use or abuse power while evading responsibility. And so in that sense I think it's cool that Orwell's rules are (and were) internally inconsistent because I think he was mainly concerned about *official* rather than casual language.

    That said, at least the way I read his essay today one might point out that you may have taken him too much to heart. Take rules one and two. Because I don't see them so much as rules as guidelines — but "guidelines" are dead metaphors (like "boilerplate") from manufacturing, and "rules" *is* a shorter word but clearly not one that "will do" as well as "guidelines."

    Always glad to hear people beat up on texts Strunk & White or (bane of my pre-highschool-dropout days) what the teachers always short-handed as the "Harbrace Handbook". Thanks in part to posts on this site I recognize that I actually do always use legally-recognizable English syntax I still think people might be able to parse my sentences more quickly if I'd been able to finish, or, often, even comprehend any of, the two.

    figleaf

  16. Nikolaus said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    """""
    Let's move to his first rule "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print"? Yet we only need to read as far as the second sentence of his essay to see him talk of the "collapse" of civilization. That would be a literal collapse would it?
    """""
    collapse |kəˈlaps|
    3 (of an institution or undertaking) fail suddenly and completely : in the face of such resolve his opposition finally collapsed.
    • (of a price or currency) drop suddenly in value.

    So yes, it would be a literal collapse.

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    @David: "The semantically minded among you may be able to come up with an interpretation of Orwell's rule which is saner than the one I adopted, by taking "any" to be a wide scope universal. In that case Orwell's rule is ambiguous rather than mad."

    I vote for ambiguous, but for a different reason.

    It seems to me that Rule 6 displays an amibuguity of deixis — i.e, an ambiguity as to what the these in these rules points to. Does it point only to Rules 1-5, or does it point also to the rule in which the word appears? In many instances (most, I would suspect), when someone says these X, that phrase is not part of the X to which it points. Of course, in most cases, X is external to the discourse entirely: these donuts, these giraffes, etc. In other cases, though, these can point to some prior part of the discourse. For example, suppose Orwell had said something like this: There are several rules you should follow. For example, do this, do that, don’t do this, avoid something else. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. In that case, these would be taken as pointing to the rules in the prior sentence. (Let's call this use of these "Noninclusive These").

    In other cases, however, the phrase these X is in fact part of the X, such as in Rule 85 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: "These rules may be cited as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." (Call this "Inclusive These.")

    In the case of Orwell's rules, several features of the text seem to point toward the Inclusive reading. The rules (including no. 6) take the form of a numbered list that is introduced by the sentence, "I think the following rules will cover most cases:" OTOH, I would bet that the vast majority of people who have read Orwell's essay never interpreted Rule 6 in the way that David reading. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if David himself didn't interpret the rule that way the first time he read it.

    What explains this? Maybe there's some sort of (pragmatic? cognitive?) preference for the Noninclusive These interpretation. My sense is that Inclusive These appears mainly, if not exclusively, in written texts, and probably in a narrow range of genres, at that.

    There's also another factor that may contribute to the ambiguity. With Noninclusive These, X is just a bunch of things (rules, donuts, giraffes, whatever). But with Inclusive These, the bunch of things is understood as making up some sort of unified whole. At least, that's the way it seems to me.

  18. figleaf said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    Although I rather passionately wish I could comprehend them!

  19. David Beaver said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Figleaf: Ronald Reagan's infamous "mistakes were made" is the very model of application of rules two, three, and five but rule four was a shrill beacon calling a drumbeat against politicians who say things like… "mistakes were made"

    Ahh, a classic example, and one which in one form or another considerably antedates Reagan. Thanks for mentioning it. I think you're getting at the very crux of the issue. The trouble with "Mistakes were made" is not that it's in any way poor English or poor style. On the contrary the problem is that it sounds too damn good, and yet doesn't convey the one piece of information that the public really deserved, i.e. an admission of who made mistakes. But that's not a piece of information Reagan wanted to convey. When he said "… serious mistakes were made….", he conveyed no more and no less than he wanted to say. The real problem is that he refused to say more, not that he expressed what he wanted to say poorly.

    Reagan could, of course, have expressed the same sentiment using the active voice: "someone made serious mistakes." But that would have been no better.

    And Reagan could have chosen to say more while still using the passive: "…serious mistakes were made by Olly, Caspar, and me." That would have been much better. People can bluster about the passive in political discourse as much as they like, but usually, they're missing the point.

  20. Jonathan said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    Orwell thought you could solve a political problem through linguistic means. By applying a kind of hygiene to language, you could prevent political lies, because you could see through to the truth more easily. For example, he disliked litotis because he thought it deceptive on some level, as though expressing something by negating its opposite were really misleading.

    I think Orwell's is a fundamentally fallacious argument on several levels. That's the fundamental problem–not his inability to follow his own rules. That inability simply demonstrates the fallaciousness. After all, if he is not following his own rules, yet still presenting a politically truthful discourse, then his rules are safely ignored.

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    Nikolaus: …yes, it [the collapse of civilization] would be a literal collapse.

    Only if the figurative (i.e. metaphorical) meaning of collapse has come to be treated as literal. The thing is, as Orwell himself says, there's no obvious bright line that separates creatively metaphorical or metonymic uses from completely frozen historical residues of such uses. And a very large fraction of the effective vocabulary of English (or any other language) is somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

    Orwell claims that "…in between these two classes [of fresh new metaphors and frozen residues] there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."

    But if you try to use frequentistic or psycholinguistic methods, or any other reproducible method, to distinguish the "worn-out" metaphors that Orwell disdains ("toe the line", "Achilles heel") from the ones that he uses ("turns of speech", "plays ducks and drakes"), I predict that you will fail. That's because his "rule" is, in the technical sense of the word, bullshit — he clearly doesn't really care that the (vague) way that he tells us to draw the line often puts excellent writing, including his own, on the wrong side of the division.

  22. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    What's bothering readers like me – and Cihan, Greg K, Dan, Rico, etc – is not the content but the tone – Orwell is a "liar," he writes 'shit," he is "unoriginal," we are invited to "yawn" when we read him.

    As we are all aware, Orwell is greatest commentator in English on the abuses of language in the service of power. He observed and portrayed the way that the powerful can use language to hide and obscure the truth, to quell dissent and to arouse passions, to mislead by indirection and innuendo without quite lying, to flatter or to condemn. He is without doubt the most perceptive and important student of the relationship of language to power. He is so important that his very name has become a synonym for the perversions of language in the service of power.

    And then we have David Beaver, a perfectly respectable associate professor of linguistics who presumably does fine technical work, but a nobody like the rest of us in the great world at large. Beaver cannot mention Orwell's name without turning purple in the face and spewing metaphorical spittle all over his readers.

    Nothing that Beaver says is actually wrong, but none of it acknowledges the importance of the essay under consideration. Orwell's essay begins with a critique of five examples of bad writing in the service of power. Beaver doesn't acknowledge that they exist. He misses the point of the essay altogether. His post is like those tiresome letters to the editor that complain about it's and its. Yes, he's correct. So what?

    So here's the thing. I would rather read Orwell being wrong about little things and right about big things than Beaver being right about little things and saying nothing at all about big things. And I could tolerate Beaver correcting Orwell on the little things if he would try not to spit on me while he does it.

    [Bloix, let me tackle some of your points.

    - First, perhaps you realized this, I don't know, but I didn't call Orwell a liar. My reference was to the famous Liar paradox, which has a circular form similar in some ways to (my interpretation of) Orwell's sixth rule.

    - Second, your claim that Orwell is greatest commentator in English on the abuses of language in the service of power. Seems a good call to me. All the more reason then why we should be aware of some things he got wrong.

    - Third, by Orwell's shit, I refer both to the silly rules, and to some of his pointless denunciations of perfectly good English expressions, issues that have been written about elsewhere on LL. I would not claim that Orwell in general writes shit. I'm a fan of his style and his creativity, and I'm sympathetic to his political and social opinions, particularly his incisive commentaries on British society. (I'm English.) But some of what he wrote in this essay, I think is bullshit.

    - Fourth, when I describe a rule he proposed as "unoriginal", my complaint is very specific. The rule simply was unoriginal. Orwell in general is one of the most creative writers I've ever had the pleasure to read. But that's no reason why I shouldn't call something unoriginal, well, unoriginal. I realize, however, that there are people out there who find the injunction to avoid passives highly stimulating, even though they have heard it before. Clearly Orwell did a good job of tapping in to this market.

    - Fifth: "Beaver cannot mention Orwell's name without turning purple in the face and spewing metaphorical spittle all over his readers." On the contrary, Orwell is a hero of mine. I enjoy talking about him. But like his own heroes, he was far from perfect.

    - Sixth, I don't know how that spittle got all over your face, and I apologize if any of it came from me.

    - Seventh: "none of it acknowledges the importance of the essay under consideration". I hereby acknowledge that the essay is important. No, really. But I still think it's riddled with serious errors. It's because of its importance that we should be aware of the errors. The same is true of many important articles, books and treatises that from time to time become accorded such status that they are regarded as infallible authorities, from Plato and Aristotle on.

    - Eighth: "His post is like those tiresome letters to the editor that complain about it's and its." This is amusing. Orwell's essay is the frothiest such letter imaginable.

    - Ninth: "Orwell's essay begins with a critique of five examples of bad writing in the service of power. Beaver doesn't acknowledge that they exist." On the contrary, I allude to them in my second paragraph, when I say "he viciously attacks contemporary cases of poor writing". I go on to say "he provides no evidence that earlier times had been perennially populated by paragons of literary virtue." Thus I'm aware of the five examples, and I find Orwell's discussion of them interesting, but I don't think they help him substantiate a crucial premise of his argument, i.e. that language is in decline.

    - Tenth: "I would rather read Orwell being wrong about little things and right about big things than Beaver being right about little things and saying nothing at all about big things." Then do. If you read Language Log, you should expect discussions of language by professional linguists. Big things, little things, any things that take our fancy really.

    - Eleventh: "I could tolerate Beaver correcting Orwell on the little things if he would try not to spit on me". Look, like I said, I'm really, really sorry about that. Here, take this hanky, we'll have you cleaned up in no time.
    - David Beaver]

  23. blahedo said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

    Wow, the tone of the comments here has a really un-LL feel; I wonder if this post got picked up somewhere else and we're seeing blowback from people for whom this is the first LL entry they've read?

    Responding directly to M. Bloix, you are misreading the critique here. The post does not make the general claim that Orwell writes shit, but rather the much more specific claim that the contents of *this particular* essay are shit. And it's certainly not the case that "Beaver cannot mention Orwell's name without turning purple in the face" and so on; Orwell is here almost entirely incidental to the main point, which is that it is infuriating to see crappy writing advice masquerading as commandments from on high and a jeremiad linking such advice with the very preservation of modern civilisation. I'm quite sure that the post would have been nearly identical had any other person besides Orwell wrote the original essay.

  24. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

    More, if I may-
    Beaver points out that Orwell is repeatedly incorrect. All well and good. What has led Orwell into error? Beaver doesn't ask. He simply asserts that Orwell is acting in bad faith – he is a liar. Mark Liberman concurs – Orwell slings bullshit.

    These confident assertions of Orwell's conscious subjective intent are entirely inconsistent with everything we readers know about him. So we reject them.

    An interesting series of posts could be written beginning with the premise that Orwell and White were actually trying in good faith to teach what they themselves could do instinctively. Then you could explore how major stylists like Orwell and White could be so badly mistaken in understanding their own achievements. Instead, what we get from you folks is contemptuous sneering, as if we were talking about Alberto Gonzales or Bill O'Reilly and not the authors of 1984 and Charlotte's Web.

    You have something very interesting to talk about, and instead you choose to bloviate on and on about how much smarter and more honest you are than your (and our) obvious betters. This is not merely off-putting. It's boring.

    [Bloix:
    - See my comment above... I never called Orwell a liar, but referred to the self-referential form of one of his rules, as in the Liar paradox.

    - I do not think Orwell acted in bad faith, and didn't suggest that he had. I am also quite confident that Mark didn't mean to intimate that Orwell acted in bad faith, merely that on some issues, Orwell stepped somewhat beyond the bounds of his competence.

    - I certainly don't claim to be more honest or clever than Orwell. I do claim to be a professional linguist. So, like anyone who specializes, I can comment on what people say about my specialization. Even when those people are smarter than me. And the issue of honesty, well, there I'm afraid you've misunderstood me, and I suspect you've misunderstood Mark too.

    -David Beaver]

  25. The other Mark P said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Orwell's "genius" about exposing the posturings of others rests firmly on 1984 and Animal Farm. Acknowledging the greatness of one part of an author's output should never make the rest of the works inviolable.

    If we suppose that Orwell's life and writings otherwise were equally spot on then things get a bit tricky. He had a few notoriously blind spots, race being not the least.

    If you don't believe me, go and find Wigan Pier. His discussion of the conditions of life in the lower classes were largely made up. But it didn't stop him posturing.

  26. figleaf said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    "The trouble with 'Mistakes were made' is not that it's in any way poor English or poor style." Yup. Orwell being Orwell and not Henry Higgins I suspect even he would have agreed the problem isn't just *how* you say it. :-)

    figleaf

  27. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    Well, I do disagree with you, Other Mark P. Homage to Catalonia is an extraordinarily important book. And in Orwell's lifetime he was more influential as an essayist and critic than as a novelist.

    Of course he had blind spots. Great men and women are not less great because they were people of their times, but because in important respects they were able to transcend their times. No, he wasn't a feminist, and yes, he was a genteel anti-Semite. But put his accomplishment next to that of any other mid-century anti-Semitic sexist (Kingsley Amis, say), and there is no question that he was a very great man.

    As for this post, I commend to the bloggers here the essays of Stephen Jay Gould on the history of science. Gould wrote respectfully and insightfully about early scientists who got things howlingly wrong, showing how their mistakes were rooted in inaccuracies in the prevailing world views of their times.

    Orwell, White, and others who wrote erroneous prescriptive rules about grammar and style are exemplars of pervasively held although erroneous beliefs. Given their accomplishments, efforts to paint them as liars or charlatans are not particularly useful or persuasive, or even interesting.

    [Bloix:
    Every time you say that I described Orwell as a liar or charlatan, I'm going to repeat this: you apparently misunderstood me, I never had any intention to suggest that Orwell was a liar, and I don't have any reason to believe he wrote the essay other than with the greatest ethical integrity. But he still stepped out of his depth, failing to present adequate evidence for his views, and giving advice which, though influential, is poor.

    Re. Gould, I like his writing, and wish he'd lived fully into the blogging age. The web is an unmanaged zoo, full of little animals like me rattling our cages, and any others we can reach. You imagine instead a web made up entirely of writing with the style, wit, and temperament of Stephen Jay Gould's books and articles. There's a thought. Ain't gonna happen, but still.
    - David Beaver]

  28. figleaf said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    "Wow, the tone of the comments here has a really un-LL feel"

    Speaking only for myself I *seriously* appreciate David Beaver's specific points about Orwell's essay and the general the shortcomings of all such prescriptivist/proscriptivist advocacy. I was also sincere when I said reading Language Log has helped me feel less horrified about my seemingly-intractable writing style.

    figleaf

  29. Tom Recht said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    I think Prof. Beaver quite misses the point of Orwell's essay, as can be seen by juxtaposing some of his objections with Orwell's own words:

    Beaver: "He proceeds to shore up the declining language with style suggestions that, regrettably enough, have never turned a Dan Brown into a George Orwell. … I wish I could write like Orwell. But his injunctions don't help."
    Orwell: "It [the defense of the English language] has nothing to do with … having what is called a 'good prose style.'"

    Beaver: "Let's start off in time honored Language Log style, by seeing how Orwell breaks his own rules."
    Orwell: "A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. … Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against."

    The point of Orwell's essay is not to "lay down the law" on good English prose style by prescribing proper usage: he says clearly that his list of injunctions is meant only as giving "rules that one can rely on when instinct fails". In any case these rules are hardly the central point of the essay, and are obviously not meant to be taken on their own but only as occasional aids to clear, unobfuscatory writing; so it's silly to attack Orwell for following them inconsistently in his own prose and to accuse him of pedantry – not to mention "language crime"! – on their account.

    As for the supposed paradox in the sixth rule, I think only a deliberately un-Gricean reader could fail to interpret "any of these rules" in the obvious sense of "any of the above rules 1-5".

  30. Dan said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    I apologize David if I offended you, but I was incensed when I read your commentary on Orwell.

    When Orwell set out his rules he gave users of English a wonderful gift to help us see through the trickery and humbug of political and business language. Your dismissal of these rules comes across to me as an act of vandalism and ignorance against something of great value.

    Would you rather we ignore Orwell's rules and allow politicians and business people to get away with pumping out their empty nonsense?

  31. David Beaver said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    Dan: Would you rather we ignore Orwell's rules and allow politicians and business people to get away with pumping out their empty nonsense?

    No, obviously. I'd rather we ignore Orwell's rules and don't allow politicians and business people to get away with pumping out their empty nonsense.

    Orwell forces people to think about what constitutes empty nonsense, and that's good. But his method of identifying empty nonsense is unfortunately little better than the empty nonsense he attacks, though at least it's well written.

    Here is how you identify empty nonsense: think about what something means, and if you can't spot any useful content, then either it's not addressed to you, or else it's nonsense. That is, if you want to know whether something is nonsense, concentrate on the meaning, and not the form. Orwell goes the wrong way, suggesting that form alone can help us identify nonsense. In most cases, it can't.

  32. David Beaver said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    Tom Recht: you made several good points, and I'll just comment on one of them for now, the point also made by Neal Goldfarb. You both suggest that "any of these rules" refers only to the previous five rules. It had occurred to me that this was a possible interpretation, but I took the use of "any" to suggest that the intended domain of application was as wide as possible. Still, I accept that both your interpretation and mine are possible.

    We'll never know exactly what Orwell intended by "these", and it's an empirical matter how most people would interpret it. But I can assure you that my own interpretation was in good faith, and not, as you put it, "deliberately un-Gricean".

    Even if we take rule 6 to have the interpretation you give it, it's still a peculiar rule. Probably better not to take it as a rule at all, but as a rhetorical device, suggesting merely that you shouldn't take rules too seriously. In that case rule 6 may be the only sane rule in the bunch, and I wish more people would use it.

  33. Beth said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    Joseph Williams makes related points in his influential article, "The Phenomenology of Error," published in College Composition and Communication in 1981. That essay has an unforgettable surprise ending. You can read it online here: http://www.stthomasu.ca/~hunt/williams.htm

  34. Wythe said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    The commentary on this insightful re-reading of Orwell makes me do a double-take. Have I even read the same post as some of my fellow Lang. Log fans? It seems to me that David Beaver never attacks Orwell-the-political-commentator or Orwell-the-writer; Beaver finds, in my reading, that prescriptive rules are yawn-worthy bullshit, whether written by gallant famous geniuses or by Joe Plumbers. Thus Beaver argues with Orwell-the-language-expert, pointing out that Orwell was not, perhaps, the expert that some of us think him to have been.

    And the angriest comments don't address Beaver's post, which is their essential problem. Even one not-so-angry comment, by Bliox, accuses Beaver of ignoring Orwell's valid points in order to pick on "little things" like imprecise language. But… this is Language Log, where linguists write about… language. I could understand Bliox's frustration if we we reading and responding to a post on English Socialism Log or History of Social Action Log or Let's All Agree On How Good Orwell Writed Log, but we're not. Beaver stays well within his bloggerly responsibilities when he digs into an essay that many of us have read, treasured, and taught–not in order to tear down Orwell-the-man, but to poke holes in yawn-worthy "rules" about what not to do when we write.

    I myself am a writer and a lover of language, but I'm also acutely aware that I am not a linguist or grammarian. If I thought I knew everything about English (or PIE, or Gaelic…), I wouldn't read this blog.

  35. Allison said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    Maybe I'm giving the old boy too much credit, but I always read the rules as semi-tongue-in-cheek. To be fair, I read it last in high school and we read it as a literary text and a criticism of a style of discourse, rather than a linguistic bible.

    I didn't really get the sense he was assuming that writing used to be better and is now terrible (although that is a common enough perspective) rather that he was discussing the particular style of terrible that was popular at the time and could the so-called smart folks cut this stuff out please.

    Here's a separate issue though – do style guides have a purpose? My syntax textbook (that starts out with the requisite defensive 'this is what linguistics is not') wants me to think so all the while it refuses to touch the subject with a ten foot pole.

    I would think style guides could be useful to writers and interesting to linguists – not from a syntactic analysis perspective, but more a, say, sociolinguistic or maybe pragmatic perspective. It's important to answer questions like, what does it mean when you use the passive versus the active – how does that change the text? What is the virtue of simple versus complex sentences? Style guides like those published by news organizations also have a purpose – they centralize the voice of the writing in that paper. Maybe more importantly it settles disputes between equally grammatical ways of saying something when a document is being produced jointly. My colleague as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality called them "glad/happy" changes.

    I also think it gives a pretty reasonable accounting of exactly what the Standard Dialect is in a society. Obviously some are better than others…or at least I assume so. Even when required to purchase style guides for English Composition classes I confess I've never actually cracked one.

    The truth is style is a matter of personal opinion. The test would be if a person who is not already an Orwell, following Orwell's injuctions, might end up with better writing. I think the answer is frequently "yes." Perhaps we've all been a bit spoiled and are unused to truly mediocre writing – like the music in our lives most of the writing we encounter is done by professionals. Go back and read some more 12th grade essays and tell me they couldn't be improved by Orwell's rules.

  36. Michael Robartes said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 3:39 am

    The other Mark P claims that Orwell’s “discussion of the conditions of life in the lower classes were largely made up”. The grammatical error there (“were” for “was”) is trivial beside the complete and utter falsehood of the claim. None of the many biographers who have gone over every detail of Orwell’s life would endorse it, and in any case the diaries and letters on which The Road to Wigan Pier was closely based have themselves been published and can be checked. It’s astonishing that such a claim could even been made, given just how stupid and ludicrous it is, though of course it used to be made by Raymond Williams and other Stalinists when they thought they could get away with it.
    It’s almost as surprising that nobody has mentioned one crucial fact about the essay that I’d have thought would have come up by now, and that struck me most forcefully when I read David Beaver’s remark: “think about what something means, and if you can't spot any useful content, then either it's not addressed to you, or else it's nonsense”. Well, yes. Hedre’s the thing: the essay was not addressed to you, or me, or any of us, but to the readers of the British magazine Horizon in April 1946, by a journalist writing for money and against a deadline. Is it possible that, far from trying to do a Strunk & White, Orwell was just doing the job that the editor of Horizon paid him to do, and set out to entertain those readers and perhaps make them think a bit? Could it be that some of you are placing a much greater weight on this essay than it was ever meant to bear? Orwell wasn’t a secular saint, or a law-giver of any kind, or an academic writing for other academics, and it’s absurdly inappropriate, and just a little bit tasteless, to kick his corpse about as if he was, or ever aspired to be, any of these things.
    Not that he needs any of us to defend him either – though Tom Recht’s comment does the job very well, and is more devastating than David Beaver seems capable of realising. Orwell’s reputation will survive this latest earnest yet grotesque misreading, as it has survived so many others, and he’s hardly the first major writer to be subjected to tin-eared carping from attention-seeking minor critics (“Look at me, look at me, I’m criticising George Orwell! Aren’t I brave and transgressive?”). Yeats’s poem “On Those who Hated The Playboy of the Western World” remains the best account of what is really going on in these cases.

  37. Michael Robartes said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 3:42 am

    "could even HAVE been made"; "HERE's the thing" – apologies on behalf of my fat fingers and tired brain.

  38. Legionseagle said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 4:37 am

    The problem, it seems to me, with Orwell's pointing out of the use of the passive in official documents to avoid responsibility ("mistakes were made") is that his pronouncement on the point is used to discredit the valid use of the passive as a way of focussing on what has occurred rather than rushing to the attribution of blame.

    "The economy has been seriously damaged" is a better starting point for a discussion about what to do about putting things right than "greedy merchant bankers ruined the economy" or "communist agitators destroyed the economy" or whatever happens to be the favourite scapegoat of the day. Similarly, with the need to keep an open mind: "the child has been found dead" ] does at least allow for a pause for breath, an unbiased investigation of the circumstances. "Someone killed the child" sets people off looking for a someone, and if it turns out to have been a "something" such as an accident it's too often late to turn back and change people's perceptions.

    If you want to incite a vengeful mob to carry pitchforks then you aren't going to use the passive voice to do it, and that can be just as much an abuse of language in the service of power than any of the examples Orwell points to of the passive voice being used to avoid responsibility.

  39. Dan said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:25 am

    David wrote:

    Orwell forces people to think about what constitutes empty nonsense, and that's good. But his method of identifying empty nonsense is unfortunately little better than the empty nonsense he attacks, though at least it's well written.

    Here is how you identify empty nonsense: think about what something means, and if you can't spot any useful content, then either it's not addressed to you, or else it's nonsense. That is, if you want to know whether something is nonsense, concentrate on the meaning, and not the form. Orwell goes the wrong way, suggesting that form alone can help us identify nonsense. In most cases, it can't.

    David, that might be a sensible approach for you as a professor of linguistics but for ordinary folk we need all the tools available. Again and again I have found Orwell's advice to be practical and helpful in making it easier for me to keep my language clear and simple.

    It's also made it easier for me to spot the bullshit in the utterances of government spokespeople and PR and marketing folk. As far as I am aware Orwell was the first person to really lay bare how these people manipulate us and deceive us through use of language.

    Strangely enough for someone who calls into question the Orwellian approach, your writing is really clear and simple, and whether you like it or not, you employ most of his rules.

  40. peter said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    This commentary demonstrates, yet again, the seeming law of nature that any criticism of George Orwell or of his writing results in the bitterest of denunciations from his defenders and acolytes, as if one had attacked motherhood, or perhaps even socialism. There's an interesting PhD thesis on the sociology of cults in there somewhere. What has always struck me as strange about this rapid-response defence, as has been noted in the past on LL, is that a writer who – most famously, in Catalonia – thought for himself, and always urged others to think for themselves, should be defended by people seemingly intent on preventing anyone interpreting Orwell's work in any but the manner approved by the Official Orwell Brigade.

  41. James Wimberley said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Greg Kochanski, early on:
    "..it is best if you cannot hide your confusion behind a screen of lexical obfuscation."
    Isn't lexical obfuscation a bit self-referential? Wordiness would do for a clean-living Puritan. But I like my cakes and ale: gâteaux, charlottes, sachertorten, strudel, pilsner, stout, kölsch, gueuze … Lexical diversity lets "the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red."

  42. Mark F. said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    The reason Orwell's essay makes some people angry is that it depicts violations of stylistic rules as moral violations. Use the passive, it says, and you are playing into the hands of the totalitarians. I think that's also why some people like it; people can feel like they're defending the cause of freedom by writing concisely.

    I tend to side with the former camp. I think people pick up on cant pretty well without his help, except when it's telling them something they already want to believe. And in the latter case his help is no use.

    Some examples where his advice strikes me as relevant but not needed:

    1. "Mistakes were made." People could tell it evaded responsibility even if they had no idea what the passive voice was.
    2. "Ethnic cleansing." That strikes me as just the sort of euphemism he wanted people not to use. But, in using it, people rapidly stripped it of its euphemistic power, so that it is now more epithet than euphemism.

  43. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    By intent, this is a meta-rule saying that the rules should be taken as defaults.

    Yes, and the intent is obvious.

    Please stop; I'm bored.

  44. David Beaver said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    As I've already commented, Tom Recht (Mr. Right, no less!) makes a number of good points. He cleverly juxtaposes a couple of my comments with quotes from Orwell. Let's look at them.

    Beaver: "He proceeds to shore up the declining language with style suggestions that, regrettably enough, have never turned a Dan Brown into a George Orwell. … I wish I could write like Orwell. But his injunctions don't help."
    Orwell: "It [the defense of the English language] has nothing to do with … having what is called a 'good prose style.'"

    To me, this highlights a slight unclarity in Orwell's essay. Orwell does indeed say a number of sensible things. But what he builds towards is an attempt at substantiating a claim he makes early on, that the "the process [of decline of the English language] is reversible". And how can we reverse it? By thinking and writing clearly, by expressing things in a striking way, by being precise, by saying what we mean rather than imitating someone else. So far, so good. But also by the use of "rules that one can rely on when instinct fails." And these rules are very clearly rules about how people should write (and speak).
    Now, Orwell thinks that his injunctions and rules have "nothing to do with … having what is called a 'good prose style.'" I can only interpret this as coherent by emphasizing the "what is called". In other words, what was then understood to be good prose style was not in fact very good. In my opinion, Orwell is very clearly and explicitly suggesting that prose style would be better if people followed his advice, and indeed that this could halt what he perceived as a decline of English.

    I'm in favor of people thinking and writing clearly, expressing things in a striking way, being precise, and saying what they mean rather than snowclonically imitating someone else. But the rest is nonsense.

    Next juxtaposition:
    Beaver: "Let's start off in time honored Language Log style, by seeing how Orwell breaks his own rules."
    Orwell: "A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. … Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against."

    Nice one!
    Ehh, so, you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that Orwell is completely right: he does indeed run afoul of his own injunctions. The bad news is that these are not faults at all. E.g. I see no reason at all to take Orwell's use of a passive in the first sentence of his essay as a fault. That first sentence expresses perfectly and tidily what Orwell means. The faults of the essay lie not in bad writing, for it is well written, but in unjustified claims and poor advice.

    Tom goes on to say:
    The point of Orwell's essay is not to "lay down the law" on good English prose style by prescribing proper usage: he says clearly that his list of injunctions is meant only as giving "rules that one can rely on when instinct fails".
    You're right: that's not the point, but it seems to be a point. I don't really buy this "when instinct fails" line anyhow. My strong suspicion is that he didn't approve at all of the instincts of the writers he was criticizing. But Orwell's short essay is insufficiently expansive as regards the language "instinct" of writers for this to be worth discussing at length. Maybe he has said more elsewhere?

    Tom again:
    "not to mention "language crime" "
    Well, I confess that I didn't expect this little play on Orwell's "thought crime" to be taken seriously. A "language crime", if it's anything at all, is not a type of crime.

    Last, let me move from Tom Recht to Michael Robartes, who says:
    Tom Recht’s comment does the job very well, and is more devastating than David Beaver seems capable of realising. Orwell’s reputation will survive this latest earnest yet grotesque misreading, as it has survived so many others, and he’s hardly the first major writer to be subjected to tin-eared carping from attention-seeking minor critics (“Look at me, look at me, I’m criticising George Orwell! Aren’t I brave and transgressive?”).
    Damn. Tom's comment is more devastating than I'm capable of realizing. I'm earnest, but I misread Orwell grotesquely. I'm tin-eared. I carp. I'm an attention seeking minor critic who thinks that by criticizing Orwell I will appear brave and transgressive.
    Well, gee. If there are any other grotesquely misreading, tin-eared, carping, attention seeking minor critics who want to appear brave and transgressive, but who are incapable of realizing how devastating Tom's comment is, please get in touch. I'm interested in a long-term relationship.
    - David Beaver

  45. Bart said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    So what's the point of all this? Orwell's works will live forever, and Mr. Beaver posted on a blog.

  46. tjallen said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    We can almost see the process in action above – I'll try to highlight:

    1. S J Gould writes a series of well-received essays on the history of science.

    2. Admirers (like Bliox above) give a description of what pleases them; to paraphrase, "When SJG critiques a genius of the past, he respectfully explains the historical and accidental circumstances that led such a genius to make such a mistake."

    3. Now we make this description into a rule, the SJG Rule: When critiquing geniuses of the past, one ought to respectfully explain the historical and accidental circumstances that led such a genius to make such a mistake.

    Now what to think when someone comes along and says, The SJG Rule is pap bullshit, doesn't always apply, and isn't a sign of anything important?

  47. tjallen said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

    As to the respect due geniuses of the past – just try lecturing on Plato in an undergrad Intro to Philosophy class. I always had to deal with the instant reaction, Who does this grad student hick think he is, nitpicking the father of philosophy?!

  48. The other Mark P said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 7:02 am

    "could even HAVE been made"; "HERE's the thing" – apologies on behalf of my fat fingers and tired brain.

    Apology not accepted, since you pointed out my equally trivial error with delight. (Which, incidentally was a missing "s" from "discussions", not a "was" for "were".)

    ——————————-

    Is it possible that, far from trying to do a Strunk & White, Orwell was just doing the job that the editor of Horizon paid him to do, and set out to entertain those readers and perhaps make them think a bit? Could it be that some of you are placing a much greater weight on this essay than it was ever meant to bear?

    So let's get this right. He was a great man, almost beyond criticism. Yet he also wrote lightweight fluff?

    You appear to be destroying your own argument. But hey, what do I know, being a quasi-Stalinist apparently.

  49. Mark Liberman said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Bart: Orwell's works will live forever, and Mr. Beaver posted on a blog.

    Orwell: There is always room for one more custard pie.

  50. Rodrigo said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    As for not raising the mobs with pitchforks by using the pasive voice, why wouldn't "Our livelihood is being destroyed by those aliens from outer space! Our very civilization is put at risk by ther bad use of language!" belong in a mob-raising speech?

    So, to make the point explicit (as if LL hadn't, often enough): Using the passive voice has nothing to do with avoiding blame (or responsibility), using words with more than 4 letters has nothing to do with being understandable (gee, 13 letters there!) and not being concise has nothing to do with not being truthful. Why, then, guard against them under the argument that political speech ought to be responsible, understandable and truthful?

    Not only you can have evil political speech that follows the rules, and good political speech that doesn't, both are actually pretty common. Thus, what do *the rules* buy us, if they don't buy us the power to discriminate evil speech from good one?

    Does the rest of the essay actually provide some way to distinguish? Then good for that part of the essay (and one could note that the original post says nothing either way about that). But why should the useless rules be excempt from criticism just from being embedded in an otherwise good argument? If anything, it makes it more important to point out their uselessness, to allow the good parts of the argument to be more easily extracted.

  51. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    David: "Here is how you identify empty nonsense: think about what something means, and if you can't spot any useful content, then either it's not addressed to you, or else it's nonsense. . . . etc."

    Spend more time among hoi polloi. The skills of critical thinking and analysis are not as universally known and practiced as you may think. If they were, democracy would work better.

    Mark: Thanks for laying idea in my head. After reading through this these comments, I could use a piece of custard pie.

  52. Aptal Maymun said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    First: I like Orwell a lot, and I also like this blog post a lot. Or, rather, Orwell and this post are both well liked by me. And I agree that Orwell's ideas about what makes good writing are bogus. But just wondering: Since most of us can spot b.s. when we see it, can linguists come up with any rules that govern b.s. writing from straight-forward honest writing, or is the whole enterprise a lost cause? Like, did Orwell just come up with baseless rules, or is it hopeless to try to find rules for b.s. at all?

  53. John Ross said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    Language Log's comments policy says "blog comments should be short. If you have a lot to say, post it on your own blog and link to it." So here's the link.

  54. Mark Liberman said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    John Ross (above) linked to a commentary on his own blog that includes this:

    To begin, I’ll confess that I don’t get the title: “Orwell’s Liar.” Is this a reference to Orwell’s work (the expression “Stalin’s liar” seems to be his), is it directly calling Orwell a liar as other commentors have interpreted, or is it something you have to be a linguist to understand?

    First, I'd like to thank John for reading and following our comments policy.

    David should have explained the "liar" reference — I think that he thought it was obvious, but then he's a semanticist. It refers to the famous "liar paradox", in which certain kinds of statements about the truth of statements lead to logical paradoxes. His point was that statements about breaking rules can in principle lead to similar problems, and that Orwell's final writing rule arguably has this problem.

  55. Mark Liberman said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    Someone calling himself "Michael Robartes" has posted several rather rather negative comments on this post. I deleted one of these, because in my opinion it contained nothing but empty abuse. He's now gone meta, and complained:

    Thank you for deleting my comment. Nice to know that lying about Orwell is OK by you, but pointing out lies is not.

    You're welcome, "Michael Robartes"; but actually, the problem is not pointing out lies, which you're welcome to do, but two other things: first, the deleted comment was both abusive and without any specific content; and second, the email addresses that you've used to register your comments are things like "robartes@madeupaddress.org", "madeupbname@madeupaddress.org", etc. I haven't checked, but I suspect that these are false. You (or someone from the same IP address) have posted in the past under some other names as well, also using email addresses like "fakename@fakeaddress.com".

    The email addresses that commenters must enter are *not* made available to the public, but we expect them to be real. We haven't enforced this, even in blatant cases, but combined with the fact that your comments always negative, with a ratio of invective to content that is always high and sometimes infinite, I'm tempted to suggest that you might consider applying for our famous money-back guarantee, on your way to finding reading material that is better for your blood pressure.

  56. Legionseagle said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:12 am

    Following Rodrigo's comment above, perhaps the only answer is an experiment:

    "Two mobs of comparable size, volatility and credulity were selected and designated Mob A and Mob P respectively. Each mob was assembled in a designated area out of sight or earshot of the other mob and given access to a supply of pitchforks and blazing torches. Each mob was shown a location, designated "Alien HQ" located approximately 1 km away from the respective gathering points of each mob. An orator addressed each of Mob A and Mob P in turn, using pre-designated scripts. Script A ("Evil tenctacled aliens are raping your wives, daughters and hamsters!") was written in the active voice; Script P (Your wives, daughters and hamsters are being raped by evil, tentacled aliens!") in the passive voice. Subsequent movement towards Alien HQ by members of Mob A and Mob P was measured…"

    Actually, I belong to a writing group some members of which have absorbed Orwell's advice to avoid the passive while having not a clue as to how to identify it. They would, for example, characterise "are raping" as passive on the basis that it contains a form of the verb "to be" which they have been taught is the touch-stone by which the passive can be identified. Both Dan and Andy Hollandbeck suggest that Orwell's rules can be a valuable tool to assist those who have not been taught critical analysis sikills to identify government obfuscation, but since the same people are unlikely to have been taught linguistic skills either it seems rather a hopeless business relying on an ability to identify the passive as a red flag for B.S.

  57. Arthur Dent said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    I was under the impression that Orwell's article was meant to be sarcastic. I thought he was breaking his own rules on purpose in order to prove a point.

  58. Arthur Dent said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    I would also like to say that I also disagree with Orwell's rules, particularly the rule regarding foreign words and phrases. As someone who speaks French, and is interested in science, I often find words that are borrowed from French or Latin to be more descriptive than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

    Many other languages are loaning words to English that are enriching the language, and allowing English speakers to be more expressive. Whenever a foreign speaker says there is no proper English translation for a word in their language, that is a good candidate for a word that may be borrowed by English speakers.

  59. Dan said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Arthur, in my experience the greatest reason for people using foreign words in English writing is not because the language lacks a word with a specific meaning, but because they want to impress.

    As long as writing is about communicating and conveying messages to the reader, we should avoid all foreign words. The fact is the English language is rich in vocabulary and most of these foreign alternatives are simply not needed.

    Adding these words is just cluttering up the text and making the reader's life harder. When we write we should be concerned more with minimising the burden on the reader. Anything else in my humble opinion is self indulgence.

    Just my two cents.

  60. Audrey said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Dan said,
    As long as writing is about communicating and conveying messages to the reader, we should avoid all foreign words. The fact is the English language is rich in vocabulary and most of these foreign alternatives are simply not needed.

    English is rich in vocabulary because of our adoption of words and phrases from foreign languages. The vast majority of the words in our vocabulary come from Latin through French. Many words that are completely common to English speakers come to us unedited from other languages, to name just a tiny fraction: kindergarten, zeitgeist, angst, and wanderlust from German; karaoke, futon, and tsunami from Japanese; cargo, armada, barbecue, cafeteria, and embargo from Spanish. These are just some I could think of off of the top of my head!

    Your suggestion is preposterous. To stop using foreign words and cease borrowing words from other languages would be detrimental to the growth and vitality of our language.

  61. legionseagle said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    I bow to the technical expertise of others on this list about word origins, but I rather think that if Dan wants to avoid using foreign words "two cents" is right out. Why can't he use the good old Anglo-Saxon term "hundredth" if he wants to talk about an – um, you know, that thing which if we were allowed to use that self-indulgent language Latin we' d call a percentage – anyway, if he wants to put in his two-hundredth of a thaler – oops, sorry that would be that self-indulgent propensity to use Dutch creeping in, and normally I never speak Dutch except when I'm drinking gin on a yacht…

  62. Dan said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    Audrey, I probably didn't explain myself as fully as I should have done.

    Those words you listed have for the most part been assimilated into our language and are now (with perhaps one exception) everyday English words, along with pizza, kiosk, bungalow, ombudsman, karate, cliché and dozens of others I could mention.

    To be precise, what I'm objecting to is the use of words that are not widely accepted as part of the language, or are only halfway in – I would count zeitgeist as one of those halfway-in words. That's because most ordinary people do not use it in everyday language. Frankly words like zeitgeist tend to be the preserve of the pretentious.

    By all means if people want to be pretentious they should use these words. But if you want to be accessible and clear to people – which is what Orwell was encouraging – then using obscure or semi-obscure foreign words is a really poor idea.

  63. Roger Lustig said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    @Dan:

    The words "that have for the most part been assimilated into our language and are now [...] everyday English words"–how did they get that way? They were all once "not widely accepted as part of the language."

    Do we owe the pretentious sorts a debt of gratitude for blazing the trail? Or could it be that these were words first used by some strata of society and not others, or by some group of professionals, or by those living in, or coming from, a particular region? All of those groups of people use terms "not widely accepted."

    When writing for the wider audience, write using words widely accepted. When speaking to a massed political rally, or to sixth-graders, or to recent immigrants from, say, East Asia, avoid saying 'zeitgeist'. (Also when speaking to Germans, because you'll probably be mispronouncing it.)

    Pretentiousness has little or nothing to do with the matter. Appropriateness is a far greater issue. There are very few words that are the best choice in *all* contexts, very few usages and styles that will fit the situation every time.

  64. Dan said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    Roger, I'm talking here about trying to communicate clearly with the general public or voters or business colleagues or customers or some kind of general audience. It's the kind of communicating that business people and politicians and journalists do and which I think Orwell was to a large extent focusing on.

    In those situations, where you wish to make your ideas as clear and accessible as possible, you shouldn't try to mess around with the language or use obscure words and phrases. That I believe is essentially the point Orwell was making and who among us can challenge that?

    If you wish to cloud your meaning because you don't really know what you're talking about, or you want to hide the truth, or you simply want to show off then by all means pack in those fancy little-known words from other languages.

    Maybe you will get to change the language, but you'll also lose or confuse a significant proportion of your audience.

    When 'easy to understand' is the aim and 'respect for the reader' is the philosophy then the last thing you should be doing is injecting lots of unfamiliar or alien words into your writing.

  65. Roger Lustig said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    @Dan:

    Who does this? Who attempts to "cloud [...] meaning" by "pack[ing] in those fancy little-known [foreign] words"? Not advertisers. Not demagogues. Not the vast majority of journalists.

    Politicians who deceive and obscure can do, and always have done, their work with simple words. Many of them are nationalists, even linguistic chauvinists. Code phrases like "defense of the family" and "states' rights" are more their stock in trade. Euphemisms such as "escalation" and "Vietnamization" and "revenue enhancement" are constructed from words known to most of us. Even the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" was named from words anyone could understand, including the 'co-' prefix.

    Was Orwell teaching rhetoric in his article? People who earn their bread writing for mass readership or public speakers don't need to be told this. Moreover, the good ones know just when to use those well-known metaphors, similes, &c. No, Orwell was arguing for a moral basis to one's writing, the goal being plainness. That his rules do not necessarily support his goal–*that*, I believe, was David Beaver's point.

    And it's a good point. Remember how Pravda readers used to know when a lie was coming? That's right–"It is well known that…" Sure enough, right there in Orwell's lead, we have "…it is generally assumed that…", itself following "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that…"

    Just count the assumptions in that sentence. See him offer any justification for them? Orwell knew, and knew full well, that rhetoric–the techniques of using words to sway opinion–and his moral posture were two different things, and was quite happy to contradict the latter, opinion-swaying being what he was being paid for.

  66. Franz Bebop said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    When I started reading this thread, I was a bit bewildered why anyone could object to Orwell's essay, taken as a whole. But after reading this post and Geoff Pullum's previous post on this topic, and after reading all the follow-ups, I think I've been convinced.

    Thanks for the education.

    It's a shame, too, because I really enjoyed that little snippet about the "comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism."

  67. Forrest said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    If language was in such decline in Orwell's time, people today must communicate with hoots and screeches.

  68. The Frumious Bandersnatch said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    I have to commend you for this piece actually. Critiquing and analyzing are not facets of reading that should only be applied to literature.
    Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language is, no doubt, important, and certainly holds truths.
    His last rule though, seems to undercut his entire argument. Orwell brings you to the point where you find yourself agreeing that language should be improved, that our words are so easily vague or twisted, and then..then he tells us to break his rules at the risk of sounding 'barbarous' (which, whoops! Isn't an anglo word, now is it? And doesn't he warn about those?). In other words, at the risk of sounding foreign.
    Now, I don't know why English's Anglo-Saxon roots are the 'best', but I'll move on from this.
    I think Orwell's essay was more to provoke thought and discussion than a set of hard and fast rules. It was an impulsion, no doubt at least partially triggered by the various occupations going on called 'liberations' and the movement of people to internment camps called 'relocations'.
    I'm not saying Orwell was "wrong"…but he isn't "right" either. His essay, like everything, should be taken with a grain of salt.

  69. Oh Well said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    Orwell's recommendations sound good to me. Use the active mood, cut out unnecessary words, avoid cliche, use short words, use everyday English. Personally I don't care that he broke these rules or why he did so. His recommendations are very similar to the general approach of The Complete Plain Words.

    I enjoyed reading David Beaver's cogent rant (is that an oxymoron?), even though I didn't agree with it. Some of the responses seem a bit extreme, but using the word "shit" is rather provocative.

  70. Paul Kay said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    Reading David Beaver's piece and the comments to this point has been an engaging experience, largely because of the sympathy aroused in me by both sides of the debate. (Semi-serious digression: Try to recast the because clause in the previous sentence avoiding the passive. E.g., "… because both sides of the debate arouse sympathy in me."? That would fail to highlight sympathy as desired, because the word would appear embedded as the direct object of arouse rather than as the head noun of its own noun phrase.) Having my mind swayed back and forth between "David's right on; Orwell's stylistic admonitions are useless at best," and "David's missing the point; Orwell is a fine writer with valuable political insights," by successive posts, I kept hearing at the back of my mind echos of something unrelated but perhaps strangely parallel. Bearing in mind that one person's spot-on analogy is another person's WTF, I proceed with trepidation (pace Dan). But what the hell, this is only a blog post. The analogy I see is see between the partisans and critics of Orwell and the partisans and critics of B.L. Whorf. I've thought a lot about Whorf over the years – considerably less about Orwell, I confess. Some things I've come to think about Whorf: (1) he had some terrific insights, though he frequently got his facts wrong; (2) he expressed his insights in ways that were more carefully qualified and nuanced than some extreme versions of Whorfianism retailed by his followers; (3) those extreme versions, plus the factual errors, get some people's backs up to the extent that their criticisms of the errors are sufficiently caustic to cause the followers to take offense – not always without justification.

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