In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pays careful attention to style—that is, how a person says something: the tone, syntax, flow of sentences, metaphors, and choice of words. He argues that the style in which people communicate determines the degree to which their governments can pass off lies as truths. In doing so, Orwell attempts to convince a politically minded audience that the specific way people express themselves—that is, their language itself—is inseparable from the content of their messages. Orwell ultimately argues that all writing is inherently political.
To begin, Orwell argues that non-professional writers should consider style a political issue. He explicitly appeals to an audience that values “political regeneration.” To this audience, he argues that bad writing isn’t just a headache for the literary world. Bad writing, he stresses, produces oppressive politics. To make this point, Orwell outlines three reasons readers should not dismiss stylistic concerns as “sentimental archaism” or the whining of a nostalgic old man: first, writing is prescriptive and descriptive of how a culture thinks; second, bad writing has serious “political and economic” consequences; and third, bad writing is fixable. Thus, to a skeptical audience who might dismiss concerns about style as “frivolous,” Orwell relies on a shared interest in politics to create buy-in for an argument about style.
After establishing the stakes for his argument, Orwell offers five short passages from various authors to illustrate the specific stylistic features of lousy writing and to show how “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” Orwell argues that all five passages share a similar, “inflated style,” meaning pompous prose that looks fancy but lacks substance. Each passage, Orwell argues, reflects a shared style of “vagueness” indicative of gobbledygook—not coherent arguments or observations. Orwell’s selection of passages also subtly reinforces the importance of style. Of the five passages, only two have a named author. The more explicitly political examples, such as the “Communist Pamphlet,” do not specify an author. What’s more, the only two passages with named authors are seemingly the most apolitical: Lancelot Hogben’s zoological observations and Harold Laski’s literary criticism. However, at the time, both of these named authors were well-known, politically engaged academics. By organizing the authors from most to least famous, Orwell subtly hints at his next point that writing style spreads through circulation: “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Further, by assigning a political name to seemingly apolitical texts, Orwell implicitly reinforces the notion that all writing is political.
From an analysis of five passages, Orwell elaborates as to why style matters for politics. Chiefly, he claims that no communication exists outside of political discourse: “In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’” Put differently, Orwell argues that bad style infects all discourse. Once normalized, audiences grow tolerant of bad style. Unfortunately, the “vagueness” is a favorite style of tyrannical governments: “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” The practice of using ambiguous phrases and “gumming” together words without regard to meaning bleeds into a dangerous political practice, in which leaders effectively reduce critical political concepts to empty buzzwords: “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.” As such, even if a writer doesn’t comment on policy, how writers collectively craft prose shapes a standard style for all areas of life—including the political. Further, bad style dulls a writer’s ability to resist oppression. Not only does reading bad prose make people stupid, without the linguistic tools to clearly define the enemy, even a well-intended opposition fails. As he describes via the example of a poorly written pamphlet against fascism, poor writing practices simply reproduce a “familiar dreary pattern” rather than articulate a concrete opposition. Bad style thus pushes people away from the truth, effectively burying people under a “mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia,” making resistance more difficult.
Throughout his essay, Orwell reiterates that readers must see the link between politics and language. As he argues, even when a writer’s subject is not political, the style of writing carries political implications. Thus, style is a political issue because it’s a key element of how governments communicate with their citizens. In this essay, he’s particularly concerned with a trend in “political speech and writing” in which bad actors can easily manipulate their citizens. With reality erased by abstraction, policymakers effectively shut out any meaningful dissent.
Style as a Political Issue ThemeTracker
Style as a Political Issue Quotes in Politics and the English Language
The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line.’ Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself […] And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.