To begin, Orwell outlines three common assumptions. First, that the English language is regularly misused and abused. Second, that the downfall of the English language mirrors the “decadence” (or moral denigration spurred by excessiveness) of English-speaking “civilization.” With both of these first two points, Orwell agrees: the decline of writing and politics go hand-and-hand.
This essay first appeared in the literary journal Horizon: A Review of Literature and Art, published in London in 1946. From this, one can deduce that Orwell's readers likely shared an interest in writing. Living in London at the end of WWII, his audience also would have experienced politically motivated violence. Here, Orwell establishes the assumptions that will shape his essay, drawing a link between politics and language to underscore the political importance of linguistic style.
Then, Orwell draws out a third assumption: that people cannot consciously improve the English language and, thus, any attempt to repair the English language is nothing more than “sentimental archaism,” or old-fashioned and pointless. On this point, Orwell disagrees. Rather than assume that language is an uncontrollable “outgrowth of nature,” Orwell argues that language is a tool that he and other writers can “shape for our purposes.”
By using inclusive pronouns like “our,” Orwell identifies himself as one of the writers to whom he speaks; that is, he attempts to establish a sense of camaraderie with this audience by asserting that they are peers, even though he will go on to sharply criticize what he views as bad writing. In declaring that people can, in fact, improve the English language, he’s also implicitly defending this very essay: this isn’t some overly-academic thought exercise, but rather an urgent and concrete political endeavor.
Specifically, Orwell compares the relationship between laziness and stupidity with shame and drinking: shame initiates drinking, which causes more shame, which then leads to more drinking and therefore more shame, and so on. Orwell thus reiterates his rationale for focusing on writing style as a fixable problem. He argues that abuse of language doesn’t just reflect laziness and stupidity. Rather, abuse of language both describes and prescribes laziness and stupidity. Because of the language’s active role in encouraging stupidity and laziness, Orwell urges writers and readers to take an active part in interrupting the corruption of language.
Orwell uses a comparison to break down the complicated idea that language is a social construction. In rhetorical terms, this is called analogical reasoning. Through analogical reasoning, the author uses an analogy to persuade his audience that, because two problems function similarly, they will share a common solution. In this case, because the reader will presumably accept that stopping drinking with ease the shame, the reader may also agree that making prose better will make people less stupid.
Orwell then takes a step back to clarify the terms of his argument, starting with the abuse of language itself: what this abuse looks like and why it occurs even among well-intentioned writers. To this end, Orwell provides five examples of passages which he describes as especially representative of bad writing. The first two passages come from academics (Professors Harold Laski and Lancelot Hogben). The last three passages cite only the publication (that is, they do not mention an author). Each example contains complicated sentence structures, many idioms and metaphors, or a series of adjectives attached to a single noun. The subjects of these passages are as follows: literary criticism, biology and language, psychology, politics, and broadcasting.
Orwell takes his own advice when it comes to writing: he seeks to ground his claims in clear, concrete examples. He shows specific examples of bad writing to help readers better grasp exactly what he’s critiquing, and to also illustrate just how common such writing is. Further, the only two passages with a named author are the seemingly most apolitical: Lancelot Hogben’s zoological observations and Harold Laski’s literary criticism. At the time, both were well-known political activists. By assigning political names to seemingly apolitical texts, Orwell foreshadows his later claim that that all writing is political.
After listing the passages, Orwell points to two elements they all share: “staleness and imagery” and “lack of precision.” Together, he argues, these elements dissolve any discernable or “concrete” point. He thus describes these passages as sloppy and unoriginal, as though the each were “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
Orwell argues that improving style improves politics. Implicitly, this means that his own writing shapes politics. Here Orwell attempts to interfere in the general atmosphere of bad prose with his own work. One of Orwell’s main gripes with bad writing is the use of clichés, which evidences a certain laziness; writers can’t be bothered to think up more unique examples, nor to articulate their points clearly. By mentioning the “prefabricated hen-house,” Orwell models the behavior he wants to see: using concrete language to call upon an inspired image.
Orwell then goes on to specify four features of bad writing. For each category he provides a definition, a few examples, the cause, and the effect.
Orwell describes his next move to the reader, enhancing the organizational clarity and precision of his argument.
First: “dying metaphors.” Orwell defines these as overused and misused phrases meant to invoke an image. For example, Orwell lists “swan song” as an overused metaphor and “the hammer and the anvil” as a misused metaphor. Behind such dead metaphors, Orwell describes a bored, lazy writer “not interested in what he is saying.” Writers thus string together a “huge dump” of dead metaphors, oftentimes without the awareness of erroneously misusing phrases (e.g., misusing “toe the line” in place of “tow the line”) to “save the trouble” of choosing their metaphors more carefully. As a result, dead metaphors make for flat, unindicative prose.
A dying-metaphor indicates the presence of a lazy writer—not necessarily an intentional scammer. That is, the writer behind “dying metaphors” is not always out to do harm—he’s just out to do very little! However, while the lazy writer lacks intention to do harm, Orwell suggests that, by normalizing stylistic features such as “dying metaphors,” the lazy writer is partially culpable for the current political culture in which political can easily mislead the public through unclear or deliberately obfuscating language.
Second: “operators” or “verbal false limbs.” Orwell defines this category as fluffing up a sentence with “extra syllables.” For example, the use of a phrase like “serve the purpose of” or inessential prefixes and suffixes (e.g., “deregionalize.”) Behind “operators” and “verbal false limbs,” Orwell describes two types of writers: (1) those looking to “save the trouble” of more carefully choosing more precise phrasing and (2) writers hoping to pass off a “banal” statement as thoughtful. The result: the prose is generally more difficult for readers to understand.
Like the previous category, this stylistic feature is generally the product of a lazy writer. Note that, although the lazy writer does not set out to lie, he nevertheless fails to tell the truth. According to Orwell, not only is imprecise prose inadequate for representing reality to others, bad writing can contaminate a writer’s own perception of reality.
Third: “pretentious diction” or language which attempts to “dress up simple statements” to give the impression of mental soundness. As an example, Orwell points to the excessive use of “foreign words” and political “jargon.” Orwell specifically accuses academics and activists of relying on pretentious diction to hide a lack of tangible knowledge and make themselves seem more “objective.” For readers, pretentious diction makes prose more difficult to process.
In this category, writers are more likely to know they’re pulling a scam—even if it’s just to hide laziness and stupidity. Orwell points to how institutionalized discourse (i.e., academia) conceals a lack of objectivity and originality through bad prose. In doing so, Orwell suggests a relationship between knowingly deceiving someone and lazily normalizing a style that allows others to practice deception.
Forth: meaningless words or words that lack a clear, concrete definition. Orwell points to words like “values” and “equality.” He warns that meaningless words are “often used in a consciously dishonest way,” and, within political writing, “almost always made with the intent to deceive.” As a result, meaningless words allow the nefarious to sell empty political promises. That is, meaningless words are often meant to rile up support for or opposition to an idea (e.g., “democracy”) without ever committing to the details.
In this section, Orwell pivots directly to political communication. The writer is described much less as unintentionally deceptive person and more purposely manipulative. The person who wields the stylistic feature “meaningless words” is certainly not stupid. Rather, some persons within this category appear to communicate with a high level of cleverness—they want to deceive people through language.
To illustrate bad prose via contrast, Orwell translates a short passage from Ecclesiastes to “modern” English. The result is longer, wordier, and less concrete that the original.
In this parody of Ecclesiastes to illustrate the degradation of language, Orwell does not make mention of the oppressive political conditions underlying the publication of the King James Bible in which the original passage appears. Therefore, in holding up Ecclesiastes as a model of good writing, Orwell somewhat contradicts his central argument. That is, he implicitly suggests that bad politics can produce good prose (in that the oppressive conditions of the King James Bible led to a clearer rendition of Ecclesiastes).
Before moving on to politics, Orwell summarizes his discussion regarding the features of bad prose. Specifically, he argues that “modern” writing “consist[s] of gumming together long strips of words” and then gussying up those phrases with needless complicated and empty words. The resulting prose is gobbledygook. He claims that the writers turn to bad prose to save time.
Orwell reiterates two sub-claims of his argument. A sub-claim reinforces the validity of the central agreement. These are: 1: lazy writing leads to bad prose and 2: bad prose does not accurately represent reality. The central argument is that widespread bad prose normalizes a culture of deception.
Orwell then explicitly connects a culture of bad writing to political tyranny. He argues that the normalization of vague prose makes it easier for bad actors to exercise brainwashing: “They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning from yourself.” In other words, mushy prose produces a squishy, easy-to-manipulate mind.
Earlier in the essay, Orwell asserts that bad writing makes readers stupid. Here he takes this point a step further: using the stylistic tools of bad writing makes the writer himself stupid. That is, as a writer engages relies on lazy imitation, he loses his grip on reality and, with that grip, the ability to think critically.
From bad writing more generally, Orwell moves to describe “political writing.” As he describes it, the majority of political communication—“pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, and the speeches of almost every party”—is horrible. What’s more, political communication is mostly people parroting meaningless phrases.
Returning to the concept of a spiral, Orwell argues that, because lazy writing makes the features of manipulation available, even non-political speech has political consequences. Specifically, Orwell explains that a “general atmosphere” of “inflated style” allows for hazy communication to become the norm. When governments can pick up on this norm, the “inflated style” of lazy writers becomes a tool for linguistic trickery for the “defense of the indefensible.” As an example, Orwell points to the use of the word “pacification” to describe state-sponsored murder.
This section connects the normalization of bad style to political oppression. To recap, Orwell’s central argument is that the normalization of bad style enables oppressive politics. Mention of “pacification” thus serves as evidence for Orwell’s argument. Shortly before the publication of this essay, the Nazi German government murdered thousands of Polish villagers under what they called pacification operations. That is, through the guise meaningless words, Nazi Germany enacted hideous violence.
To illustrate how a bad actor could use “inflated style” to manipulate an audience, Orwell invents a hypothetical character: an English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He then speaks in the voice of that character to show how a speaker could use inflated style to reframe the murder of political opponents by saying that “certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods.” Orwell thus warns the reader that, in the hands of a clever bad actor, inflated style can make violence seem innocuous.
To echo his point that bad style enables deception, Orwell invents a hypothetical character with the same linguistic style as the real professors cited earlier in the essay. Also, while Orwell does not mention specifics, his audience was likely aware of the Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s practice of silencing dissent via murder.
Orwell goes as far as to claim that relying on “readymade” phrases can “anesthetize” the brains of well-intended writers. To illustrate how “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” Orwell turns to a political pamphlet denouncing German fascism. As he describes it, although the writer has a worthy cause, he’s unable to articulate his position in any meaningful way. Orwell thus argues that the culture of communicative vagueness makes people too stupid to meaningfully oppose tyranny.
Now Orwell expands on the stakes of his argument. Stakes are what readers may gain or lose when by accepting an argument. Using the anti-fascism pamphlet as an example, Orwell identifies the ability to resist dictatorial politics as the stakes for his argument—in other words, he asserts that his discussion of language isn’t esoteric or theoretical, but instead has urgent, real-world applications.
Despite the bad state of communication and politics, Orwell is hopeful that writers and readers can interrupt the cycle of lazy writing and political abuses. The solution, as he describes it, is more thoughtful writing and reading practices.
The thesis for this essay (or main argument) makes two interrelated claims. 1: normalization of unclear communicative style enables political oppression and 2: people can raise the standard of writing. In this part of the essay, Orwell shifts focus to the second claim, discussing the specifics of how to improve writing.
To interrupt the cycle of lazy literacy and political evils, Orwell encourages more honesty in communication through more concise prose: the “fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.” Orwell reiterates that relying on readymade phrases is a particularly dangerous habit with the potential of “blurring or even changing your meaning.” To this end, Orwell recommends writers spend more time thinking about their truth before they begin writing.
For Orwell, writing marks an end to thinking. On this point, Orwell’s writing advice is at odds with the writing advice of most contemporary writing instructors, including those who agree with Orwell in all other aspects of his argument. Namely, most of today’s writing instructors believe the opposite: writing a part of thinking—not the end.
Before describing his “rules” for better writing, Orwell notes that improving writing practices isn’t striking out old words from one’s vocabulary or setting up a new grammatical standard. He likewise warns readers against “fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial.” Instead, Orwell recommends a robust approach to writing and reading which favors concrete language and concision.
Throughout the essay, Orwell describes the language as being in a denigrated state. That is, it’s worse than before. Often, the assumption that language is worse off now than it was in the past stems from the belief that that people are too loose with the rules of grammar. Here, Orwell explicitly declares that he is not advocating for the enforcement of a grammatical standard. Instead, he wants people to do the work of thinking clearly and then ensuring that their prose reflects that clarity through concision and precision.
To this end, Orwell provides a series of rules to encourage clarity and concision throughout the writing process. These include: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” and “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Orwell ends his list of rules by encouraging writers to break any rule if that rule means saying “anything outright barbarous.”
Orwell is hesitant to declare a universal standard, adding the caveat that a writer should feel empowered to break any of his rules if he needs to. Orwell is thus uncertain about the best way to write, but sure about the best outcome: the truth.
Before reaching for a conclusion, Orwell notes the limits of his argument. Explicitly, he argues that his advice does not apply to literary prose. Also, he specifically notes that, unlike Stuart Chase, whom Orwell claims comes “near” banning abstract language as means to eliminate political dissent, he does not think it’s a good idea to ban abstract language altogether.
Orwell carves out a space for “literary” or fictional prose, which he presumably affords a longer stylistic leash because fiction—by its very definition—is a dishonest project. Also, Orwell presumably references Chase’s book, The Tyranny of Language. Note that, while Orwell implies otherwise, Chase did not advocate in favor of eliminating abstract language. In fact, Chase invented the phrase “The New Deal.”
To conclude, Orwell encourages the reader to “change his own habits” as means to resist government manipulation. After all, he reiterates, within a culture of vagueness, it's easier to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Therefore, he encourages readers to send the features of bad prose “to the dustbin where it belongs.”
Throughout the essay, Orwell describes the degeneration of language practices as widespread and ingrained: not the product of a single writer or group or exclusive to one medium. However, in the last third of his essay, he focuses on ways individuals can intervene in the process of normalization. Given this discrepancy, it’s unclear how much of an intervention he believes this essay will make towards improving prose or politics.