Something to conversate about

At least twice yearly, anyone in a communications job should be forced – at gunpoint if necessary – to read George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

Orwell is most famous as the author of the allegorical Animal Farm and the cautionary Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always considered him a middling novelist, but a brilliant essayist.

In 1946, Orwell was preoccupied with the decline of the English language into meaninglessness, and the social and political ramifications of that decline. Poor writing, he felt, was a reflection of poor thinking processes. Not only that, it caused even poorer thinking processes in turn. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” he wrote. “It is rather the same thing that 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.”

I’ve seen egregious errors in grammar and usage in marketing, public relations, advertising and journalism that, I’m sure, the writer didn’t realize was wrong.

Recently, a press release told me that demand for voice over IP was “literally exploding.” I deleted Skype from my home computer – no sense taking the chance it’ll blow up in my face.

Years ago, when I worked at a community newspaper, there was a stand-off in the production room over a sentence fragment. The managing editor called it “new journalism.” The sports editor shrieked, “What? Illiteracy?”

The common flaws that Orwell wrote of in 1946 are all the more common now. If her were alive, he’d be able to write of them even more vehemently, but perhaps with less convincing hope that “the process is reversible. 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 …”

One peeve of Orwell’s in particular gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies: the dying metaphor.

How many times have you read the phrase “tow the line”? How many times have you written it? Now picture the image in your head. What the hell does “tow the line” mean? It’s “toe the line.” Now picture it. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But people use the expression as a reflex, without thinking through the image. I’ll never forget the press release that referred to an early warning indicator as “the canary in the minefield.” Which, actually, is a pretty gruesome metaphor.

Misunderstood metaphors, pretentious diction and ridiculous swaps of word function – creating verbs from nouns by adding the suffix “ize”; conversely, creating nouns by adding “age” to a verb – create the typical meaningless trainwreck that is a modern sentence. Orwell applies these to a passage from Ecclesiastes and comes up with a wickedly funny and sadly familiar parody:

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.

Honestly, now: Would you have written that? Or this:

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.

One of many places you can read the essay online is at

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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