I met someone in the coffee shop today who used to teach Science writing at Curtin Uni in Perth Australia. The idea was to teach students of various science disciplines how to communicate in clear English, given that the standard of writing of these students was appalling.
We chatted and I asked if they used Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language at any stage of their teaching? Their answer rather surprised me: they’d not heard of it. I ought really to add an exclamation mark to that! How strange that someone teaching the use of English should not know of what is probably the single most famous essay on the subject.
I went back to the essay myself, first via Wikipedia, which is worth doing, and then back to the text itself.
I find many passages still resonate strongly today. They seem so fresh. Which is exactly why Orwell is quoted by both Left and Right. But “have we got any better”? I think “no”. Look at these quotes below and one will surely conclude we’re making the same mistakes today. And yet, there’s something about writing clearly that everyone loves and aspires to. Examples of Orwell’s foresight:
But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks....
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones. ...
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning....
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?
I sent this essay to my staff back in 1990 when I was named the first boss of the East Asia Region of Austrade, the Australian Trade Commission. I encouraged clear writing and I thought the essay a basis for that. I don’t know what they might have thought of this in private. Mocking, perhaps. But I think -- I like to think -- that our writing, or reporting to our superiors in Australia, became simpler and clearer.
To simplify Orwell, maybe the “TL;DR” of the essay:
- Avoid the passive voice. “X killed Y” rather than “Y was killed”.
- Avoid Latin, Greek; prefer the Anglo-Saxon: Anglo-Saxon words are short, simple and blunt: 'think', 'pick', 'help', 'eat' and 'drink'. Compare these with their Latinate equivalents: 'imagine', 'select', 'assist', 'consume' and 'imbibe'. Latinates are multisyllabic, cerebral and a bit soft.
- Short sentences.