There Are No New Ideas Part 2: Politics and the English Language

In this blog series, I visit some old (and I mean old) literature to illustrate how ideas of knowledge mobilization and research impact have very deep roots. Part 2 looks at an essay by George Orwell from 1946 (yes, 70 years ago) which makes the case for clear language. Orwell advises writers to use “the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning”.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language. 

The essay provides five examples of less than clear language and it is important to note that three of the five are from scholarly sources. Each of these examples uses two common qualities that contribute to unclear language: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Orwell states that,

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not….prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse

Short words not long phrases contribute to clear communication. Orwell uses what he calls “modern English” to re-write an excerpt from Ecclesiastics

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness….The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness”. Orwell issues a call for using clear words to clearly express meaning. He points out how phrases have replaced words such as,

Break: render inoperative

Protest: militate against

Touch: make contact with

Cause: give rise to

Usually: exhibit a tendency to

We are also making grammar more complicated.

The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining)

He also claims that the “attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say ‘In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption’ that than to say ‘I think’.”

Is this sounding familiar, especially to those trained in clear language writing and design principles? Orwell points out that:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself…Could I put it more shortly?” And “Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

He creates further parameters to guide writing in clear language:

 (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

While not at the end of the essay, I think the essay can be summed up by his statement, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”.  By this he means that we should “make pretentiousness unfashionable” by paying attention to our meaning and make it as clear as possible by making it as short as possible and avoiding anything ugly.

All of this should resonate with knowledge mobilization practitioners seeking to translate the results of research into clear language.

For more on clear language, see our paper on the ResearchSnapshot clear language research summary format. You can also full text search the online database of research summaries.

Read the rest of this blog series:

There Are No New Ideas Part 1: Scholarship and Social Agitation

There Are No New Ideas Part 3: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

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