The one sentence summary
Political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and vice versa – we can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
- This essay was published in 1945. 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. Our civilisation is decadent, and our language must inevitably share in the general collapse.
- Language and thought are interrelated. The language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, and the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
- Dead language has two common qualities: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. It’s a mixture of vagueness and incompetence. Words become replaced with phrases, tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. Examples include:
- Dying metaphors: ring the changes, toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, explore every avenue, leave no stone unturned
- Operators or verbal false limbs: render inoperative, militate against, give rise to, have the effect of
- Pretentious diction: phenomenon, primary, utilize, constitute, epoch-making, age-old, veritable, liquidate
- Meaningless words: values, sentimental, dead, totalitarian, progressive
- Once you have the habit, it is easier and can even be quicker to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that… than to say I think.
- A speaker who uses this kind of thoughtless phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine – the appropriate noises are coming out but the brain is not engaged.
- Debased language is very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins at one’s elbow.
- 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 squirting out ink. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- Scrupulous writers need to ask of every sentence:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
- Try to follow these rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- Although written 75 years ago, this could have been written yesterday and the points would be valid.