Tuesday, November 27, 2012

George Orwell dispenses valuable advice, craps on politicians

Don't use the passive voice, dummy
From George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language":
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
He gives six rules for avoiding bad writing:
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.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is good advice, but Orwell's essay is really about politics and language (as the title states). He writes:
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
This suggests that bad political writing is a deliberate act of malice rather than mere incompetence. Orwell wrote the essay in 1946 about British politics, but this point remains relevant for Americans in 2012. How much has been written about the "epistemic closure" of the republican party in the run up to the recent election? How much of that phenomenon was based on near-meaningless talk and writing from pundits and politicians?

For Orwell, clear writing is political activism.

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