pencil with three dialogue bubbles above it filled with writing

Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

Start Free Trial

How does Orwell connect politics with the English language?

Quick answer:

Orwell's main point in "Politics and the English Language" is that contemporary English, particularly political writing, is generally feeble and vague because writers do not think clearly about what they want to say or how to convey their message succinctly and vividly. This leads to the English language becoming more imprecise, which in turn leads to it becoming more useful for propaganda.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell attacks bad writing in general. He gives examples of passages that contain stale imagery, muddled thinking, and pretentious diction, complaining that such writing is generally confusing and boring to read. This is true regardless of the subject, but Orwell points out that these general faults of style are particularly consequential in the case of political writing. This is because political writing is "largely the defence of the indefensible."

Orwell remarks that if one were to describe British imperialism in India, the Russian purges, or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki using simple English that anyone could grasp, the murderous cruelty of the most powerful countries in the world would immediately become apparent. Political writing is vague and boring because it is intended to hide atrocities and prevent anyone from thinking too deeply about what is happening. He gives examples of some euphemisms that have become common currency:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell, therefore, invites his readers to notice the intellectual dishonesty that lies behind the bland phrases of political writing and also to be as precise as possible in their own writing, not only for the sake of style, but to preserve their integrity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is Orwell's main point in "Politics and the English Language"?

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell claims that contemporary English is generally badly written and without grace, vividness, or even clarity, and he gives several examples to illustrate his point. The first two of these come from the work of two well-known university professors, and the others are also from writers who are clearly well-educated. It is people such as these, Orwell claims, not the semi-educated, who are destroying the English language. Well-educated writers use pretentious, circumlocutory diction and long Latin words to obscure meaning rather than clarify it. Their imagery is stale, and they do not consider how to convey their point forcefully.

Orwell further illustrates his idea with a modern parody of a passage from the Bible. The biblical language is clear and uses simple images that would have been familiar to readers. Orwell's modern version uses no images at all, and it is dry and tedious by comparison. He points out that most writers, whether bureaucrats or academics, have little experience of the world outside their offices, which means that vivid new similes and metaphors are unlikely to occur to them.

Orwell also thinks that political writing is particularly likely to be bad, either because it is intentionally dishonest or because the writer is supporting a cause without understanding precisely what they think and why. As the English language becomes more imprecise, Orwell believes, it develops the potential to be used by tyrants and authoritarian figures to obscure meaning.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are Orwell's rules in "Politics and the English Language"?

In Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," he lays out six rules for good writing, which to him is clear, precise writing that tells the truth. Anyone who has taken a writing course will find them familiar, as they are foundational rules explained in any book about good writing.

These rules are as follows.

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

In other words, Orwell says, don't use clichés. Don't simply repeat what everyone else is saying. Use fresh language that comes from your own mind. Clichés can become dangerous, he says, because they are stale and keep people from thinking for themselves.

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

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Rules 2 and 3 are fairly self-explanatory: Orwell advises prioritizing short words and concise language.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The passive voice emphasizes the subject of a sentence: an example would be if someone wrote, "It is believed by many that ..." instead of "Many believe that ..."

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell condemns the many foreign words and phrases that have been introduced into English, arguing that a writer would be better off finding an equivalent English word than using terms such as deus ex machina or mutatis mutandis.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rules, Orwell implies, are meant to be broken. Orwell would much rather see a writer break one of these rules than write something "barbarous" and keep all of them.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did Orwell write "Politics and the English Language"?

Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language" in 1945 because he had become increasingly alarmed over the connection between the misuse of language and the misuse of politics. He saw a direct connection between abuse of political power and abuse of language. He wrote the essay to explore ways language was being misused to support evil, pointing, for example, to the vague language and euphemisms that supported the brutal and exploitative British regime in India.

In the essay, Orwell chooses five passages from various sources containing vague and misleading language. He then locates the most glaring problems and describes how to correct them. He writes that the "slovenliness [in the use] of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts."

Orwell's rules for good writing are still central to clear and precise writing today. They include avoiding clichés; using short, simple words instead of long, complex ones; cutting out unneeded words; using the active rather than the passive voice; and avoiding foreign phrases and jargon.

Orwell believed that democracies could be very easily undermined through deceptive and unclear use of language, which can make evil sound good and allow false or sloppy logic to pass for wisdom or truth. He fleshes out these ideas fully in his two most famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984, in which abuse of language by the ruling elite allows evil and oppression to flourish.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on