Orwell’s advice for communications professionals
In recent years, commentators have turned to George Orwell, known for showing how language can be misused for nefarious purposes in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, to help explain how language is used (or misused) by modern-day politicians, including the apparent effectiveness of simplistic, repetitive messaging in achieving previously unthinkable outcomes.
Before the author coined ‘Newspeak’ in his most famous work, he wrote about how a debasement of the English language was responsible for the politics of his time, and the detrimental effect politics can have on language, in turn, in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. In it, he describes the relationship between poor thinking and bad language and recommends the following rules as a corrective for writers:
i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
As we have done previously with Hemingway’s iceberg theory, we thought that we would have a look at what communications professionals can take from Orwell’s oft-cited essay.
The two features of the prevailing political writing of his day that Orwell disliked most were staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. In particular, he takes issue with words and phrases that have been used so readily that they have lost their impact or meaning.
Dead metaphors, false limbs, pretentious diction
He deals specifically with dead metaphors – tired or worn out expressions that have lost their effect, either because they have been used too liberally or because they have become so far removed from their original meaning that they have ceased to invoke images in the mind of the reader.
Orwell subsequently bemoans verbal false limbs. These are constructions of words that are used when a simple verb, conjunction or preposition would do, such as ‘give rise to’ or ‘with respect to’, which are deployed to lend a sense of authority or impartiality to biased opinions. It is here that he criticises the tendency to use the passive rather than the active voice.
He also counsels against what he calls pretentious diction, meaning the use of words like utilise rather than use or individual instead of person, as well as foreign words and expressions, and he advocates words with Anglo-Saxon, rather than Greek or Latin, origins.
Also in Orwell’s crosshairs are words that are meaningless when used as abstract concepts or outside of a technical context, like ‘galvanise’, or ones that are used so unsparingly that people can be convinced that they are synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such as ‘Fascism’, ’Socialism’, ‘progressive’ or perhaps ‘unprecedented’.
Poor communication or deliberate obfuscation
At best, the danger with these ‘swindles and perversions’ is that writers who rely on them are not really thinking about what they mean to say, and the result is poor communication. “Ready-made phrases will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent,” he says.
At worst, the purpose is obfuscation; the justification of acts, policies and standpoints that would be abhorrent to the majority if described in plain English, such as breaking the law in ‘limited and specific ways’ maybe.
“Political language (…) is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It would be naive to think that this is never the intention of communications professionals. Was that a knowing smile from the Prime Minister when he said that the government prefers the term ‘Covid-status certification’ to ‘vaccine passports’?
Before listing his rules for writers, Orwell says:
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is the image fresh enough to have an effect: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
Commonly used metaphors can elucidate meaning, but not as vividly as an original image. However, we must be careful to avoid clichés that cause the reader to let out a mental sigh and distract from the message we are delivering.
The advice that good writing is concise is long-standing. Maximum effect is often achieved by distilling as much meaning into as few words as necessary; it is one argument for favouring the active voice. Ironically, Shakespeare gives the line “Brevity is the soul of wit,” to a droning politician.
The popularisation of the view that the passive voice should be avoided has been attributed to the influence of Strunk and White’s famous style guide. There are clearly instances where the passive voice is preferable to the active, and respected dictionaries of usage argue for its usefulness, apart from where it could deceive.
A prohibition on foreign words seems contrary to the implicit warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four that the constriction of language can be a method of control. There are no satisfactory English equivalents for ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘déjà vu’ – these words help us to express our thoughts. A wide vocabulary is helpful for expressing meaning and avoiding repetition. How many people consider the root language of the words they use?
However, Orwell states that he is not advocating for a ‘standard English’ or the use of colloquial language, nor are correct grammar or syntax his targets. He says that his rules are for when instinct fails and acknowledges that he might have broken some of them in the essay. Remember that the last rule prohibits ugly writing for the sake of adhering to the others.
Perhaps the most relevant point that Orwell makes for communications professionals is to check that what we write is exactly what we mean:
Let the meaning choose the word
“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. This dictates careful thinking about what you want to say (…) Afterwards one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person.”
For communications professionals this demands editing, revision and rewriting. This takes time and effort. It is not easy, but this is one way in which we add value.
We might also think more about how original imagery can enhance our work.
If Orwell is correct, and we review what we write as he suggests, we will go some way to redressing the depravity of modern politics, as well as communicating more effectively.
You can read Politics and the English Language in full on the Orwell Foundation website here.