Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

Matt Mullenweg was on The Changelog podcast. If you didn’t know, Matt is the creator of WordPress which is the software that provides the backbone for 25% (or more) of the internet. It’s a big deal.

Here is the interview on The Changelog:

I wanted to hear him on The Changelog for a programmer focused conversation. His interview with Tim was great, but it didn’t address WordPress technology specifically. As WordPress is the dominant content management system (CMS) for most of our podcast production clients, it’s important that I stay up to date on what’s happening.

Here is his interview with Tim:

At the end of the Changelog podcast, Matt suggests George Orwell’s Politics and the English language.

If Matt says that is required reading, I’ll take the advice. Here are my notes:

Notes on Politics and the English Language

George Orwell is a great writer. His essay on killing an elephant was one of the most memorable in my life. I’m reminded of it immediately upon starting another of his essays.

To Orwell, the problems that appear in written language are symptomatic of mental vices which affect everyone. He opens with a description of his modern written environment. It sounds honest and subjective.

To take apart bad writing, Orwell provides a numbered list of examples of bad writing. I’ll provide a list of my own reactions to the passages. I can later cross reference my initial thoughts with what Orwell says about them:

  1. Lots of useless wording and double negatives
  2. Lots of colloquialisms
  3. I honestly don’t know what this example is about
  4. Big words when little words would do better
  5. Again. Hard to understand, big silly words and unclear thoughts

Ok so now Orwell defines why these passages are bad. He says there are 2 qualities that effect them all:

  1. Staleness of Imagery
  2. Lack of Precision

These manifest in the following ways:

  • Dying metaphors
  • Operators or verbal false limbs
  • Pretentious diction
  • Marxist writing
  • Meaningless words

I love Orwells imagery. “..a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.” When reading this, I see what he sees.

He talks about the epistemology of words. Examples being using myosotis instead of “forget-me-not” to name a flower. Greek words sound scientific so the writer gets high class points… but they aren’t saying anything more than the guy who buy’s some “forget-me-not’s” for his girlfriend.

Another crime of language for Orwell: Naming without calling up mental pictures. “Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” We do this today in America. Fighting terrorism is, in reality, a flying robot dropping explosives on illiterate village dwellers who hardly have access to electricity.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” – George Orwell

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” – George Orwell

“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” – George Orwell

Rules to rely on when instinct fails:

  1. Don’t use metaphors, smilies or figures of speech when you know them from print
  2. Don’t use long words when short words will do
  3. When a word can be cut, cut it
  4. Don’t use passive tense when active tense is possible
  5. If you can think of everyday words, use them. Don’t purposely replace everyday words with scientific or foreign ones
  6. Break these rules before saying anything barbarous

Orwell wants us to think of language as an instrument of expressing (not concealing) thought.

Closing Thoughts

This is probably the best article I’ve ever read in terms of what makes good writing good.

That term still is impossible to define for me. What is ‘good writing’?

Two books come up for me when asking this question. The first is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book has plenty of examples of bad writing, but I think it says something valuable about the connection of art and utility.

The second is Stephen King’s book On Writing. I feel like this letter from Orwell is the shorter version of On Writing. If you can read On Writing, do it. If you won’t budget the time, this Orwell letter will do a good job.

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