George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language still resonates with readers today, and was part of the inspiration behind the founding of Prism-Clarity.
Here we take a new look at this seminal piece and why it is still so relevant.
The argument is that language and politics are inseparable: politics is language and language is politics. Thought corrupts language, and language corrupts thought.
The message is that going back to clear English not only transforms bad writing into good, but helps clean things up more generally.
Maybe in other parts of professional or business life, not just politics. Maybe even in banking.
Politics and language
George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is an inspired piece that still resonates with readers 70 years on.
Orwell’s thesis is that politics and language are so intertwined that decadence, slovenliness and insincerity in political life and thought have to reveal themselves in the language politicians use.
Thus thought corrupts language, and language corrupts thought.
This idea applies now as much as it did in 1946. The proof is there on the news every day, in the referendum debate or the Budget speech, in parliamentary committee evidence, in manifestos, on Twitter, in PR releases, anywhere you care to look.
Orwell was targeting post war politicians but by all accounts they were a fine and principled body compared to the present day bunch. Today we might settle for decadent, slovenly and insincere as the best we could hope for.
True, the voting public and even some in the political class seem to be getting tired of the dishonesty. Electoral success for more plain-speaking and thinking politicians may be a sign that the debauchery is coming to an end. In truth that may be optimistic.
Into the bin
Back to Orwell: by reversing the trend towards slovenly debased English in political circles – and restoring clear English standards – we can take a step towards the wider ambition of reversing debasement in politics more generally:
“The present … chaos is connected with the decay of language, and … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. … One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some wornout and useless phrase … into the dustbin where it belongs.”
This is the main point of the current blog, and one of the ideas behind Prism-Clarity.
If we apply this idea in our daily work – just try to use clear English – perhaps we can encourage politicians, bankers and others to do the same, and help bring about wider change.
But what does Orwell really mean by clear English?
The ideal is captured by three words: clarity, accuracy and simplicity.
Clear expression reflects clear thought; and the other way round. Accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation are essential to achieving clarity. Simple structure and vocabulary further reinforce it.
Another extract from the essay:
“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
These short rules are a touchstone for the standards of clear English that Orwell wants us to aspire to.
In the end, write what you like
Though the last rule seems to come full circle and allow the writer freedom to write anything at all, as long as it is not ‘outright barbarous’.
Orwell notes that even in his own essay he probably commits most of the crimes he identifies. I am probably guilty of most of them in this short blog.
Perhaps this is his point. It’s OK to have awareness of the standards but then just go ahead and ignore them; to preserve individuality, freedom of expression, and interest.
Even so the first five rules surely help to transform bad writing into good.
And better, clearer written English seems to be making a comeback more broadly. Whole books, websites and campaigns are devoted to achieving more fairness and clarity for consumers, and better written English usage in government, academia and the professional and business worlds.
In the UK, the Plain English campaign speaks out against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information, its stated mission that everyone should have access to clear and concise information. In the US, Congress has passed laws requiring government agencies to use plain language guidelines.
Plain English and clear English are not the same thing. But they are close cousins, working together to get a better deal for consumers.
We like this trend, and aim to place ourselves squarely in it, using Orwell’s five rules as a guide.
Bankers and politicians wear the same suits – don’t they?
Earlier I mentioned banking, and whether it could be part of the language-inspired reform we are talking about.
It’s a common view that politicians and bankers move in the same circles, and wear suits cut from the same cloth. Some of the captains of the banking industry – mostly no longer in positions of power – demonstrated behaviour so decadent, slovenly and insincere that it made even the politicians look good.
Of course this conduct has badly tarnished the banking industry’s reputation, since the financial crisis, as well as before and during it. The LIBOR debacle was one example, but sadly a long way from the only one.
Following Orwell, you’d say the language of the miscreants followed suit. Even now if you look carefully you can find bankers using language that is self-serving, self-satisfied, disingenuous, jargon-bound, or just plain misleading.
That simply reinforces and reflects the wider debasement of the industry.
But banking is cleaning itself up. Most individuals who work in banking and financial services are fine and principled people – legal, decent, honest and truthful – and always were. It was a few exceptions, often in top jobs, who brought shame on themselves and their industry.
But now culture, conduct and accountability are the buzzwords, at the centre of every bank’s business and every mission statement. Badgered by parliamentary committees, public opinion and the press, the banks are rooting out the bad apples and improving themselves. The regulators watch on with sharp eyes and furrowed brows.
As Orwell observed in politics, improvements in the quality and integrity of language are right at the heart of this banking clean-up. As in politics, the improvements in language have wider connotations than just the aesthetic, academic or cultural.
At Prism-Clarity we are trying to do our small bit to help: by using clear English ourselves and encouraging our friends, colleagues, clients, thought leaders and industry leaders to do the same.