On Orwell's Great Opus

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If you have not yet sought it out, Orwell's "Politics and the English Langauge" is still required reading. Written in 1946, his analysis is still dead-on and the trends he noted are becoming only more entrenched. His introductory analysis of five examples of overblown prose will make you exceedingly cautious when you are tempted to use the word "utilize" again.

I would say that this essay, along with Strunk and White will point you in the proper direction of clear prose more readily than a passel of University professors.

from "Politics and the English Language"
George Orwell

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

. . . It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. . . . People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.

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Dear Steven,
My name is Haleh and I am one of the activists supporting the BLOG-IRAN Grassroots Campaign which is an effort to unite all blogs around the world for one cause - which is to stand united with the Iranian people in their struggle against a Theocratic Fanatical Islamic Dictatorship that continues to brutalize and murder anyone who speaks out for freedom. At this time in the history of the human race it is crucial that the world support the Iranian people in their struggle, for it is this Islamic Regime that not only brutalizes beautiful Iran and it's children but also contributes to many fanatical and fundamentalist terrorist acts around the world as well as continuing to cause problems for the coalition troops in Iraq. The Islamic Regime in Iran is made up of nothing more than murderers and tyrants - so we must stand united against them!!!!

Please Unite! if interested visit http://www.activistchat.com/blogiran/

Best to you, and yours!

In Unity, Struggle, & Peace!

Wow, Mr. Riddle - you get some esoteric comments!

Dear Mr. White,

Yes. . . well. . . I suppose when one posts on Orwell . . .

I was a bit surprised myself and uncertain, what, if anything to do. So I suppose I'll just let people say what they think and devise a policy from that point.



I suspect Strunk would have something to say about all those exclamation points.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 3, 2003 7:58 AM.

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