Politics and the English Language

by

George Orwell

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Politics and the English Language Summary

George Orwell’s central argument is that the normalization of bad writing leads to political oppression. Orwell starts with the premise that the distortion of “language” reflects a “corruption” of “civilization.” But Orwell objects to the conclusion he believes readers usually draw from this initial premise. Specifically, Orwell claims that most readers—even those who think language and politics are in a bad state—presume that language is merely a mirror of society. That is, language only reflects the state of the world. Orwell claims language doesn’t just reflect the condition society. Language, he argues, also shapes society. He contends that language is both prescriptive and descriptive of civilization’s decline.

Orwell then takes a step back to what explain constitutes bad writing. He begins by listing a series of passages. Reading each passage, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to make out the writer’s point. Orwell uses these passages to identify the elements of bad writing, such as “inflated prose” or a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence.” In describing the features of “inflated prose,” Orwell posits that laziness is the primary driver of “inflated style.” That is, instead choosing words and phrases carefully, lazy writers use inflated style to grab whatever smart-sounding words and phrases they have on hand. In the process, bad writers lose their grip on reality, allowing junked-up prose to create a “gap between one's real and one's declared aims.” These writers, he explains, exchange truth for convincing as they pull together words without “really thinking.”

According to Orwell, inflated style circulates through society like a disease, rotting the brains of writers and readers. Once the normalized, Orwell warns, aspiring dictators can more easily engage in linguistic trickery. Manipulative governments can “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” by using the same “inflated style” of lazy writers. In other words, dictatorships merely capitalize on the linguistic vagueness normalized by lazy writers.

Thus, as means of resisting oppression, Orwell encourages readers to adopt more careful reading and writing practices. To help a writer “change his own habits” as means to resists government manipulation, Orwell outlines eight guidelines for writers geared towards more honesty and concision. He explicitly warns against relying on “readymade phrases” which he describes as like “a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow.” Instead, Orwell encourages readers to exercise more imagination and create more vivid metaphors. Likewise, Orwell recommends concision: using as few syllables and words as possible.