A friend of mine who possess a sound mind, unless he’s drunk in which case his mindset can be frightening when in close proximity, something about the government using watermelons to infiltrate our minds, regularly complains that the rise of the internet is the single greatest contributing factor in the de-evolution of the English language. My response is usually to disagree, though the written dialogue recorded on twitter don’t exactly help me. The reason I contest this opinion is because I am a frequent reader of George Orwell, particularly his essay Politics and the English Language.
Now some readers may immediately recognize that title because they had to read it in high school, or, far more likely, in college when they took their English 1301/101/PQ-Z/FM/ATM/BYOB/E.G./GTFO/Etc. course. The essay is usually published in essay compilations dealing either with the structure of essays, historically important essays, canonical essays, or essays dealing with the language of rhetoric. I have two books that contain the essay, one being my copy of 75 Arguments and the other, which I’ll cite from here, George Orwell: A Collection of Essays. The prolific publication of Politics and the English Language is most likely due to my friend’s sentiment, not to mention the steady pain suffered by English teachers when reading freshman composition essays.
Orwell starts recognizing before he’s even begun the complicated affair of his own argument:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. (156)
There’s an immediate defeatism in this sentiment that sings eternal to anyone who has had some connection to Composition education at some point in their lives. The reality is that when many people write they’re burdened by witticisms, lead-ins, anecdotes, and similes as bad as sinking ship full of novelists…yeah I think that worked. To put it a simpler way: people tend not write good. Orwell observes this and also notes right away what the immediate conflict with observing this fact:
It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansome[sic] cabs to aeroplanes[sic]. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrumental which we shape for our own purposes. (156)
Orwell often had the successful, and highly annoying habit to his critics, of foreseeing objections and statements and his immediate rebuttal is still relevant as I look back to my friend. While I respect his intellect I feel that his criticism of contemporary English is due more to the fact that he’s of a different generation than me and thus prone to the habit of sentimentalizing the experiences and mechanisms that existed when he was a younger man, and Orwell observes my reaction before I was even sperm. It’s easy to dismiss the image of the elderly couple complaining about “kids these days and their blasted queer sayings, in my day…” and you can fill in the rest of that blank for yourself, and looking at Orwell’s beginning argument it may at first appear that I’m supporting those two curmudgeons in their flower covered, plastic wrapped sofas. I’m not. Orwell was incorrect when attempting to observe that language is not an organic and constantly changing mechanism, but he was right for observing that when people attempt to argue that the use of language has become corrupted or faulty, the observer is looked upon as a relic of their time or else hopelessly naïve.
Orwell though is not complaining about the increase of slang, but rather the thoughtlessness employed when using it and other writing strategies. He follows his opening remarks with an important point:
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: It is not due simply to the bad influence of those or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form, and so on indefinitely. […] Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. (156-7)
Orwell’s concern is politics, particularly how the inclusion of various, as he refers to them, “tricks” have infected and polluted the ability of the writer and reader to truly understand context and implication in writing. These include: Dying metaphors (no axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed, etc.), operators or verbal false limbs (give rise to, have the effect of, make itself felt, take effect, etc.), pretentious diction (words like objective, exploit, utilize, primary, categorical, etc.), meaningless words (words like romantic, values, human, dead, etc.). Now the regular reader may object to one or two of these and Orwell himself asks his reader to, 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. (168). Noting that he himself isn’t immune to any of these tricks only further demonstrates his point. There is something that takes place in the mind of writers that seems truly devoid of thought. Words are thrown about not because of the relevance they have towards the idea they’re trying to express, but because they sound nice and Orwell is able to observe:
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say. In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. (164).
Rereading Politics and the English Language is a lot like being caught masturbating. There’s no correct way to really recognize the shame that you’ve been caught doing something that, while completely natural, compromises your position with whoever has discovered you. Looking back through the “tricks” he describes I recognize that I am guilty of every offense. I use phrases like “the fact of the matter” and “make itself felt” all the time, and when the nagging little writer on my shoulder appears, always wearing a tweed jacket and obscene purple bow-tie like he’s all-that, and reminds me that I can reconstruct my sentences so that they’re stronger, my “out defense” is that the internet will forgive me.
Unlike some writers that publicly say they never read their work, I read my work all the time, desperate to find a flaw in my work so that I can correct it later. Nevertheless the idea that it’s “just something for the internet” has infected my work and writing, and that in itself is a political ideology. The internet is a place where minor sins of grammar and rhetorical structure are forgiven because the social politics is a confused republican demagoguery where any and all may exist without fear, except from trolls and grammar Nazi’s, of expressing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas. Such freedom, while cathartic, allows an uninhibited mindset to develop however, and soon enough language becomes prey to piss poor rhetoric, a deconstruction of argumentative structure, atrocious grammar (as exemplified in too many embarrassing instances in this blog), and many of the “tricks” Orwell forewarned about.
The reader may take this time to object that this criticism is just another self-hating grammar Nazi on the internet bitching endlessly ad nauseum about how people don’t take the time to learn about semi-colons, but who the fuck cares about semicolons anyway? Does it really matter that people use fancy words and metaphors that they don’t actually understand when they write?
Of course it does. If you’re not going to bother to think about what you’re writing why bother to write it in the first place.
Orwell’s essay is not the only the voice that matters in this argument however, for ultimately my concern is how to begin teaching people, why begin teaching people, how to write in the face of this abuse. For help in this I turn to a man few people outside of academia may be aware of.
James A. Berlin is a bit of a rock star in Composition studies because his books and essays that sought to lift Composition out of the slough-of-despond it found itself in and provide it with a real legitimacy. I encountered the man in my first semester in Grad School when I was taking a Studies in History of Composition Course. It was in his essay Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories though that I discovered a sentence that communicated a vision of writing I had never heard so perfectly expressed:
In teaching writing, we are not simply offering training in a useful technical skill that is meant as a simple compliment to the more important studies of other areas. We are teaching a way of experiencing the world, a way of ordering and making sense of it. (776).
Writing is physical manifestation of thought, and both Berlin and Orwell express then the necessity of teaching and encouraging against thoughtless writing. It’s not an elitist position to argue that people should think about the words they write before they commit them to public viewing. When essays, novels, short stories, poems, etc. are published they become part of the discourse, but more importantly they become part of the everyday media people will encounter, observe, process, and then go about their day. Orwell noted this earlier, But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form, and so on indefinitely. (156). This isn’t an outlandish statement when we remember how embedded habit is to our species. Human beings, after ideology and religion have passed, are motivated for the most part for a desire for comfort and so getting into a routine is a part of that. As people progress through, at least as far as America is concerned, the educational system only a handful have really been taught how to write, and why it’s important that they take time for their writing. The reason for this concern, of course because it’s Orwell after all, is politics:
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. (167).
It’s easy to ignore political language because so few people understand it. I’m about to graduate with a masters degree in English and sometimes I’m left scrambling for my Webster’s Dictionary while the writer is quietly sneaking out the door. There’s nothing wrong with complex language, or language that is beautiful for beauty’s sake, but again, the reader needs to understand the context, and be trained to interpret the context accordingly so they can, to quote John Stewart, catch the real bullshit.
Orwell may one day be an anachronism, but for the time being the man’s work is possessed by an incredible resiliency. Within a year I hope to be teaching freshman writing courses at a local college and so looking back at this essays there seems to be more and more an approaching relevance. It’s foolish to believe that as a lone teacher I can hope to bring about an intellectual revolution (that’s what fan-fiction is for), but I do hope that in my time I may be allowed to impart this lesson: thinking about what you write isn’t just for a few PhD’s in research institutions. Those of us that write regularly are part of cultural tradition, and just because it’s easier to start a sentence with a bad metaphor like using a mud soaked boot to represent the lower class, doesn’t mean it’s good writing, it means you watched Masterpiece Theater on PBS once on your laptop at Starbucks when you should have been writing.
Seriously Bro (or lady bro) you’re better than that, then again you write at Starbucks so I might be being altruistic.
For the record I’m positive that I’ve violated the rules Orwell establishes in this essay at some point, so please forgive me. Please. Please. Oh come on the cartoons were funny. You know what, I don’t care, we never talk anymore anyway, and you look fat in those jeans…I’m sorry baby you know I love you.
I’ve included a link to Orwell’s essay below.
Berlin’s essay is also below: