Politics and the English Language Summary

"Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell is a 1946 essay about how to compose English prose in an accurate and rhetorically forceful manner.

  • Orwell asserts that a great deal of contemporary English-language prose is needlessly complicated and obscure.
  • Orwell identifies several sources of this decline: an over-reliance on Latinate and foreign-derived words, stale and clichéd phrases, and watered-down statements.
  • The essay concludes with a practical list of principles to follow when composing clear, forceful prose.

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Last Updated on February 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Introduction

George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” was published in 1946 in the literary magazine Horizon. Though modern considerations of Orwell more often focus on his novels—especially Animal Farm and 1984—his contemporaries knew him better as an essayist and literary critic. “Politics and the English Language” is regarded as one of his most influential works of criticism for its analysis of the vague and overly complicated rhetoric that suffused the post-World War II political landscape. Orwell’s oeuvre focuses heavily on the dangers posed by authoritarianism, and in “Politics” he expresses the belief that language manipulation is a powerful tool in the arsenal of tyranny. Using examples pulled from other contemporary works and speeches, Orwell demonstrates the ways in which imprecise language obscures meaning—both intentionally and unintentionally—and offers solutions for writing more sincere and straightforward prose.

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Summary

The first portion of “Politics and the English Language” reasons that modern language is in decline because it is overly and pointlessly complicated. This kind of language, fraught with large words but lacking meaning, is susceptible to being used in propaganda. Orwell argues against the introduction of foreign words into the English lexicon, claiming that they only serve to complicate and obfuscate meaning. Latin- and Greek-derived terms are, according to Orwell, a crutch that allows scientists and politicians to sound more intelligent and “grand” while diluting the precision of their language.

Orwell believes that modern English speech is becoming increasingly insincere and therefore more useful as propaganda. He analyzes five pieces of text to show how their authors use over-complicated and vague writing to achieve their purposes. He selects works by Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, and Paul Goodman, as well as a communist pamphlet and a reader’s letter from Tribune. All of these pieces of writing are, according to Orwell, at best misleading and at worst actively deceptive. Politicians have sanitized inexcusable acts—such as “the continuance of British rule in India” or “the dropping of atom bombs on Japan”—through a combination of “stale imagery,” unnecessarily complicated diction, and words that have been abstracted to the point of meaninglessness.

To further illustrate his point, Orwell attempts to translate a number of statements into “modern English.” The bombing of...

(The entire section contains 636 words.)

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