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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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In "Politics and the English Language," are there inconsistencies in Orwell's views?

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In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell claims the "English language is in a very bad way," but then writes in the clear, transparent prose that is the hallmark of his style. In the middle of the essay, in fact, he challenges the reader to "Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and committed the very faults I'm protesting about." With almost no exceptions, he doesn't commit them.

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In is seminal essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell informs the reader in the very first sentence that the

English language is in a very bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.

In addition to not...

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believing that—he thinks the problem is curable, and lays out his case not only with practical advice but also in his imitable clear style—Orwell is being modest. Moreover, he does not run afoul of the abominations he preaches against, save for a few harmless examples.

This should not come as a surprise to the reader, a modern one or one of his contemporaries in the 1930s and 1940s. In another essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell says it’s impossible to write something meaningful “unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” But Orwell wanted more than to write clearly and reject humbug; he also wanted “to make political writing into an art.”

That statement appears to contradict the idea of suppressing one’s personality; an artist is nothing if not an extreme projection of who or what one is. On the other hand, Orwell’s firm, clear, limpid style is an art form unto itself. Any great artist in any genre is difficult if not impossible to mimic, even as, especially with an art form like writing, certain similarities will persist. And for all the simplicity of Orwell’s style, it is remarkably difficult to copy. As John Carey notes in the introduction to the Everyman Library edition of Orwell’s essays, Orwell’s style is “plain and simple—or seems to be until you try to write like him.”

Orwell isn’t always simple and plain, at least on the surface. In “Politics and the English Language,” for instance, he challenges the reader to prove he’s no better than all the other writers, saying that he too will succumb to the numerous ways “of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.”

Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

The gentleman doth protest too much. Orwell understands the command of language he possesses as a writer, and, by 1946, the year he wrote this essay, anyone who read his work knew it too. Nonetheless, there are indeed a few such moments when Orwell slips, as he tells us he will. At a few points, for instance, he will employ, if not “dying metaphors,” at least useless ones. Certain phrases to avoid “are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins at one’s elbow.” A writer feels he has something new to say, and “yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern.” He concludes the essay by saying he wants to “send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.”

But to complain about these trifles is to murder to dissect. The essay reads as fresh and clear today as it did in 1946. That Orwell is still being read fits his own definition of what it means to be a great artist: “For any work of art there is only one test worth bothering about—survival.”

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