Monday, 28 January 2013

Politics and the English Language

Everyone involved in politics should read George Orwell’s essay Politics and English Language (see Wikipedia’s summary and the full original text). It was written in 1946, in an era when fascists and communists had abused language with somewhat more serious consequences than the efforts of today’s spin doctors. But it remains just as relevant.

The essay articulates Orwell’s philosophy of good writing. His enemy was unclear prose, which hides the truth rather than expresses it. He argued that, when language is not clear, it usually indicates there is no clear thought behind it. He advocated using plain English and set out six rules to avoid poor writing. Print these rules and stick them next to your computer screen.

Having read Orwell’s essay, do listen to this morning’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week (part of a series of special programmes on Radio 4 commemorating Orwell). It was a thoroughly entertaining and intelligent debate about political writing and the legacy of Orwell’s essay. Amongst other things, we learned why today’s politicians feel compelled to use hackneyed phrases that would make Orwell shudder, such as ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘hard-working families’.

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