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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Orwell's Second Rule

"Never use a long word where a short one will do."

The length of words has nothing to do with anything. I would say: "always use the right word whatever its length." Use the precise word you need to use. Sometimes empty will do and sometimes you need vacuous. Sometimes puerile and sometimes childish. Well, those are pretty much the same length, but you see what I'm saying. I've always felt that the prejudice against Latinate vocabulary stinks.

Pullum says it well: "If longer words generally have slightly different meanings to shorter ones, then surely the right injunction is to use a word which means what you want to say, regardless of length." Pullum points out that Orwell uses "scrupulous" rather than "careful," because scrupulous was the word he needed. It brings extra resonance, extra connotations, that the shorter word doesn't.

Search for "Orwell" on Language Log and you'll find similar critiques of Orwell.


Orwell begins his famous (and vastly overrated) essay "Politics and The English Language" by noting the decline of the English language. It should be obvious that the English language had declined in 1946.

The problem I see here is that this is not at all obvious what it would mean to say that the English language was in a sorry state. To what is Orwell comparing it? Victorian English? English in 1800, in 1700? Without a meaningful point of comparison the statement is vacuous.

Virginia Woolf had died in 1941; I suppose her death dealt the English language a serious blow, especially since James Joyce died the same year, but Hemingway and Faulkner and Auden and William Carlos Williams were still alive. And Orwell himself. (He himself excludes literary language at the end of his essay, but by doing so I think he makes a grave mistake. After all, if writers of fiction and poetry, and literary essays [like those of Woolf], can write English then the language itself cannot be decadent, only certain genres of non-fiction writing.) He can't mean that there was nobody around who was handy with a prepositional phrase. What he seems to mean is that he can pick up the newspaper or a book and easily find bad writing. Once again, without a point of comparison (newspapers of 10 years before?) he really hasn't a leg to stand on.

That a Communist pamphlet is poorly written tells us nothing about the "state of English" at a particular time. It might tell you something about Communism, or the writer of the tract. Bad writing is always possible, in any period of time.

His own invented examples are particularly puerile. You can't attack something by substituting your own parody of it for the real thing, as he does with his mock translation of Ecclesiastes. HIs suggestion of "unblack" as an example of litotes is particularly thick-headed, showing his utter lack of understanding of how the trope works rhetorically.

In future posts I will be examining more of Orwell's weak thinking about language. What bothers me most is how much people admire this fallacious and poorly executed essay. After all, if it weren't admired, I would have not reason to complain.

Don't bother to tell me what Orwell really meant. If a manifesto on behalf of clarity is so hard to understand then Orwell has failed twice over.


Andrew Shields said...

Your last point reminds me of Pullum, who often concludes his Language Log posts with warnings about the kinds of comments that he will find ludicrous. Then people make them anyway, and you can hear the shaking of his head about them ...

Vance Maverick said...

In partial defense of "unblack", it's actually "not unblack", and he's not offering it as an example of litotes so much as a mantra to ward off the "not un-" construction, even when properly used for litotes, e.g. "not unknown".

Thomas said...

Isn't the problem really that he doesn't know what litotes are and how they work? He talks about what he calls "the not un- construction" and constructs, as Jonathan rightly says, a silly mantra to "cure" us of it by "laughing it out of existence". But his sentence isn't funny at all. It just completely misses the point.

Jonathan said...

Yes, exactly. You can't call something yellow "not ungreen" because that's not how the trope works, so the mantra is unfunny.