Last week, my first-year students looked at George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In his essay, Orwell argues that the English language is in general decline. Politics, economics, and general usage are, according to Orwell, lowering the quality of the language. He made this argument in 1946.
Orwell writes: “It [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 thoughts.” Are we any better off today?
While I agree with Orwell’s argument about this form of laziness, I also think the language has and continues to adapt and change. Politics and economics still have their effects, but so does technology, social media, and climate change. A recent article in The Walrus by Gretchen McCulloch offers a fascinating look at the way the language adapts.
I can make excuses for the English language and how people use it, but I will always come back to Orwell’s six rules of usage:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(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.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Apply these rules to anything you write, and it will always get better.