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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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What is Orwell's major argument in "Politics and the English Language" regarding the importance of language in communication?

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Orwell's primary argument in "Politics and the English Language" is that a person should strive to use language as an instrument of truth. He argues that when politicians, writers and other people misuse language for their own benefit, they are distorting reality. Orwell believes that this distortion of reality is dangerous.

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In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell is positively scathing about the way in which the English language has been increasingly used and abused to serve certain sectional interests in society. He is particularly critical of how the language of politics has become debased, distorted by ideology and self-interest to the extent that a dangerous chasm between language and reality has opened up.

Political rhetoric comes in for some especially harsh criticism. Thanks to their shameless misuse of the English language, politicians can hide the truth, making lies sound truthful and murder respectable. As far as possible, argues Orwell, language should be used to convey truth and meaning. To that end, it should strive for clarity and conciseness.

But for Orwell, it's becoming increasingly the case that language is being used in the opposite way and for the exact opposite effect. Politicians resort to vague, windy generalizations in order to conceal the fundamental vacuity of their ideas and positions. In doing so, they create an alternative reality in which black is white, and vice versa.

This is precisely what Squealer, Napoleon's propagandist-in-chief, does in Animal Farm. It's also becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary politics, in which certain politicians cynically distort the truth by emptying language of its meaning and being deliberately vague and evasive in what they say to the press and to the people.

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Orwell argues in this essay that thoughtless and inaccurate use of language can lead to unwelcome political and economic outcomes—and also, in turn, that bad political and economic situations can lead to the misuse of language to cover up the problems. As he illustrates more fully in 1984 and Animal Farm, letting absurd statements go unquestioned allows unscrupulous groups to tighten their grip on power. As he asks in this essay, how can a person oppose fascism if nobody ever properly explains what the word means? He argues that it is important for concrete reasons that impact our to day-to-day life that we both write clearly and demand clear writing from others. This is not merely an academic exercise meant to please English teachers, but a way to keep tyranny at bay and democracy alive.

In much of the essay, Orwell illustrates and outlines what clear language consists of. For instance, he says the following:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell notes too that insincere language is a problem, stating, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." He says we should be careful to say what we mean and mean what we say.

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Orwell makes the argument that people have to pay attention to language because the sloppy or inaccurate use of language can lead to dangerous and oppressive political situations. He gives examples of words that have become meaningless from overuse; an example is the word "freedom." He provides the sentence "The Soviet press is the freest in the world" as an example. The vagueness of the language allows people to express misleading statements. Sloppy language does not just lead to inaccuracy and vagueness in everyday language; instead, this type of language also leads to political oppression and tyranny of all kinds. For example, Orwell cites the example of the word "pacification" to refer to the relentless bombing of peasants and their relocation to other areas. "Pacification" is a word that means peace, but the word is used menacingly and inaccurately to refer to death and relocation.

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George Orwell's major argument in Politics and the English Language, is that the English language has become worse as time has gone on. This article was written in 1946 and George Orwell has very strong opinions on this matter.

He states "The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thought." He goes on to say "Written English is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." What does all of this mean?

Orwell believed that politicians were using these forms of bad language to trick the public into believing their way of thinking. He believed that politicians disguised their intentions behind euphemisms and convoluted phrasing. What he was trying to say was that the decline of the English language, was now allowing politicians to use terms that would capture their intended audience, thus leading to more votes.

Orwell gave six remedies for this problem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orwell was trying to teach everyone that the simpler and more honest your words are the better the politics would be.

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