Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: A Largely Non-linguistic Defence

There were many reasons to enjoy the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) last September.

Hobnobbing with editorial mates and making new ones. Singing with the Linnets editorial choir. The opportunity to see two of my most admired writers on language speak on the same day. Oliver Kamm, “The Pedant” columnist in The Times and scourge of language sticklers everywhere. [“You at the back, Humphrys, concentrate!”] And Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at Edinburgh University, co-author of the best English grammar book there is, and evidence-based language realist and scientist beyond surpass.

At this point I have to make what amounts to a confession, in light of the previous paragraph.

I am one of millions who has enjoyed, been influenced by, read and re-read, quoted, referenced and taken to heart George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. I even wrote my first Prism-Clarity blog on it. The same essay that Oliver and Geoff are on a conscious mission to debunk, rebut and vilify, on grounds of intellectual dishonesty, stylistic inconsistency and – on the linguistics front – naivety at best, incompetence at worst.

Hmmm. How to reconcile these conflicting life forces? Satan and God. Sun and rain. Oliver, Geoff and George.

Typewriter and Glasses

“Defending the indefensible”

I do understand – rationally – where Oliver Kamm and Geoff Pullum are coming from.

But the emotional pull of Orwell’s essay leads me to resist simply junking it and going over unreservedly to the side of the linguistic good; to hold off from switching my inaugural blog setting from “public” to “private”; to see if there is another way.

So this blog attempts to defend the indefensible. Perhaps it lacks intellectual rigour. Or looks like an embarrassing celebrity apologia. It may harm my chances of ever being admitted to the Linguist’s Ball. But it’s a form of resolution therapy. It has to be done and said.

Here then are my four arguments in defence of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

1. He was only joking

The whole essay is tongue in cheek. It has to be. How else could he justify a set of six rules where the final rule logically undermines and negates the preceding five? A logical black hole, where matter destroys itself leaving just – nothing – as writer and comedian Stewart Lee put it in his famous jibe on UKIP and the anti immigrationers. Ah, good old nothing. Just nothing. Nothing.

In case you haven’t read it, this is what I am talking about:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

That last word involves a considerable value judgment. And is very subjective – who is to judge barbarity? One writer’s barbarous is another’s raw, contemporary, edgy, far out. You could say this word implies the very opposite of prescriptive. Avoid the barbarous, but judge for yourself what that means.

Perhaps the best evidence of the logical circularity I think Orwell intended comes before his six rules; when he acknowledges the following:

Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

Not much use, as rules, if they can be broken with such equanimity! Which is the answer: they were not really rules at all and were intended to be broken at will.

Stepped Wall Cloud Sky

2. Everyone was a stickler in 1946

One thing that’s objectionable about the essay – the critics say – is that it makes prescriptive linguistic assertions out of pure air. It’s hypocritical and dishonest, reflecting dreamily on some grand mythical past when writing standards were higher and everyone was clear and credible in their meaning.

In short a stickler’s dream. And let’s not pretend: this was an essay any stickler would have been proud to write. Sticklers worldwide were and are – in modern argot – prone to give it a “like”.

The truth is in 1946 there wasn’t much linguistic liberalism about. A war-shocked Britain was in the habit of prescribing, conforming, just getting on. Orwell’s linguistic views do come over in the article as a bit stickler-ish, pompous, reactionary and to our eye rather old-fashioned. Seen through a contemporary lens I think it’s not surprising. He wasn’t a visionary linguist, for all the brilliance he may have brought to political, social commentary, literary and journalistic spheres. As a generalist in that (linguistic) field he simply reflected the prevailing tone.

3. He’s not alone in opposing the passive

Even taking a modern view – let alone a contemporary one – nothing moves linguistic debate like the passive voice. Style guides left and right, the Plain English Campaign, textbooks, articles, websites and reviews: none of them has a good word to say about using the passive where there is a perfectly good active (ideally first or second person) alternative. But the defenders are staunch. They regard passive avoidance as reflecting a trend to dumb down language which is both dangerous and avoidable.

I agree, actually, that the pendulum has swung too far, and that one of our greatest literary minds maybe should have known better.

My defence of Orwell is essentially founded on an analysis deployed by Steven Pinker in his brilliant book A Sense of Style which – to paraphrase in very simple terms – acknowledges that the passive is a double-edged tool.

Where it’s used to avoid accountability, to hedge, to avoid personalisation, to reflect dull corporatism, the passive is dire and dismal. But where it’s used to demonstrate, to highlight the impact of a thought or action without any care or mind for who thought the thought or was responsible for the action – to avert the reader’s gaze towards an object or concept, in what Pinker describes as ‘classic style’ – the passive voice is the most elegant and efficient of tools.

You can guess my contention: Orwell was talking primarily about the passive in dull corporate avoidance mode – the kind beloved of the politicians he was taking aim at – and not the elegant ‘classic style’ use of the passive, which writers and linguists like Kamm, Pullum and Pinker so hotly and rightly defend.

4. He’s no W(h)orf

This is perhaps the most technical aspect of the Kamm critique: the accusation that in using the words “language can corrupt thought”, Orwell represents a controversial – many would now say discredited – school of linguistic thought. The ideas of linguistic relativity and determinism, developed formally by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1940s, hold that the structure of a language determines its speakers’ world view – hence determinism. These schools have gone in and out of linguistic fashion at different times, but have been out of favour much more than they’ve been in. And Orwell, the argument goes, reveals himself a closet determinist by suggesting that language can actually be responsible for cognitive substance.

So far so convincing. But the idea that “language corrupts thought” – which in isolation does look a bit like something a Whorfian relativist might say – was actually preceded by the mirror-image sentence: “thought corrupts language”. I would contend, without much academic basis, admittedly, that anyone making this statement can’t possibly be a relativist – can they?

At a stretch you could argue Orwell’s intention was another instance of logical circularity and negation, just like the five rules and the sixth anti-rule. Perhaps the two elements – language corrupts thought and thought corrupts language – were designed to deliberately and consciously cancel each other out, rather than both being positively co-dependently true?

Easy to forgive

In his Pedant column, Oliver accuses Orwell of being a jeremiad about language and calls Politics and the English Language overrated and ill-informed. On an intellectual level, I admit to understanding all three comments. But in the end, even so, I find I can pretty easily forgive.

When I was first thinking of starting my business I found Orwell’s essay resonated strongly with me, for one main reason. The manipulative, self-serving double-speak of the politicians of Orwell’s time seemed so redolent of the manipulative, self-serving double-speak of many bankers I’d worked with over my career, both pre- and post-crisis. Perhaps I spent too long in banking. But I grew tired of the dishonest language used to explain the excesses, to justify the abysmally short-term (usually 12-month, bonus-related) mode of thinking and behaviour that I witnessed almost everywhere I worked.

I don’t think Orwell was aiming to decry the linguistic patterns of the person in the street. His targets were well-educated, politically savvy establishment figures who used language to control, intimidate and neutralise, to mute and dilute. If there was corruption it was in the thoughts and behaviour of the political elite, left as well as right. The essay was published nine months after Attlee’s “welfare” election victory in July 1945, just in time for the euphoria to have worn off and cynicism to have taken root. The new government and its reforms proved no panacea, and austerity prevailed for over a decade before some economic and social liberation started setting in.

In the end it doesn’t matter

Just as austerity still prevails here and now, ten years after the crash. Public anger with bankers remains acute, only recently getting subsumed by new targets: Trump, Clinton, Brexit, anti-Brexit, terrorists, peacemakers, gun-owners, gun-opposers. This is the point. I think we are right to expect more honesty, and less verbal soft-soap, robotic repetition and ill-framed cliche, from both bankers and politicians. It is in that direction that I am most aligned to Orwell, irrespective of the half-hearted or even half-arsed linguistic crimes he commits in his essay.

In the end it doesn’t matter too much. Politics and the English Language still provokes debate. That matters. The Oliver Kamm/Geoff Pullum view may prevail. Maybe the essay will soon be debunked out of polite social and academic circles, and maybe admirers will stop referring to it in awed tones. It would be good if we no longer needed it.