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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Politics and the English Language - 1945 and 2015


George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language 70 years ago. What he said is a fresh and as relevant today as the day it was written. If only the present generation of journalists would take time to read it, blush to the roots of their hair and then act on its principles, political discourse in the media would be infinitely improved. But perhaps the blind are leading the blind these days, with a generation of editors who sprang from semi-literate journalistic roots – tone-deaf conductors of an orchestra of amateurs …

Orwell opens his essay with this arresting statement -

“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.”

This sentence resonates with me. Whenever I try, as an occasional writer and a non-journalist, to try and point up the loss of meaning resulting from the misuse of a word, I am assailed by accusations of pedantry, and the mantra that usage determines everything – language is a living, evolving entity.

In fact, I agree completely with that. I detest and reject language snobbery and pedantry (and have written numerous letters in the press to support that view) and I celebrate the evolution of language and accept its inevitability. But, without wishing to advocate a kind of language eugenics, I do believe that some of the unfortunate conditions produced by the wrong turns of language evolution are as treatable - in the best interests of the patient and those around him or her - as those of physical evolution.

I don’t want to prevent the natural process or stop it happening, I simply want to remedy the deficiencies that inhibit the purpose of the evolution – more effective, vibrant, relevant communication of ideas in a changing world.

To deny this is to deny the teaching of English, the understanding of grammar and syntax (as opposed to the imposition as inflexible grammatical and syntactical rules), to deny the function of literary criticism and the vital role of models of excellence in the spoken and written word. Music is a language – it communicates – and it is also an art, and like any art, the effectiveness of the communication and the ideas, emotions and intellectual responses it evokes are dependent in significant part on technique. So with the English  language - technique must never stifle innovation or vitality. But equally, the lack of it should never inhibit the realisation of its full potential and expression.

Orwell’s focus was politics and the English language. Written in 1945, after a destructive world war, where the manipulation and debasement of language for the two decades preceding it through propaganda and political censorship had led to appalling consequences, his belief was that although “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes” we did not have to accept this, and that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes” - we can pervert it or choose to shape it positively instead of just passively accepting its decline.

“… the same thing is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish - but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Orwell captures the essence of the problem – translating ill-conceived ideas and concepts into words produces bad English, and habitual use of bad English results in the generation of more bad ideas.

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.”

You said it, George, and seventy years on, the situation has become infinitely worse.

I should say here that my criticism of current journalism and political writing is not just directed at the expression of views that I disagree with. I can think of writers whose political philosophy is the antithesis of mine but for whose prose style I have great admiration, such as Alex Massie and Fraser Nelson. Sadly, I can also easily summon to mind journalists and politicians whose views I generally share who express them in fractured syntax and tired clichés and boiler plate phrases.


My complaints are directed at those who make their living by words, written or spoken – the professionals. I make some allowance for politicians when they venture into print, for bloggers and tweeters, and a lot of licence to ordinary voters and campaigners, although I feel that they might be offered some advice on style and structure by the editors of the publications that carry their words.

That involves an assumption that the editorial staff are more literate than the contributors. Much of what appears routinely in print would seem to suggest that either they’re not, or they just don’t give a damn.

As for me? Definitely a non-professional, relying on the education I received up to my fifteenth birthday, when I left school and entered the world of work. (Brief though it was, it was sound in the basics.) My understanding of formal grammar is rudimentary and instinctive: I break the rules both inadvertently and unwittingly, and often quite deliberately to achieve an effect. I value the forceful structures and cadences of my native Glaswegian, and I have a strand of the uniquely Irish approach to English. I do not hold myself up as any kind of model.

If ideas are expressed coherently, vigorously, colourfully and communicate themselves effectively to me, I don’t give a damn about grammar or syntax, and I make huge allowances for non-professionals when they utter a passionate but sometimes incoherent cry of frustration, indignation and pain about the inhumanity, greed and injustice that blights their life.

But to the professionals – for those who make their living by the word – I offer no quarter. It’s your job: do it right, and do it well – that’s what you’re paid for.