Friday, April 20, 2012

30 March 2011 – Is there a ribbon to protest the abuse of language?


A recent office move stirred up many things, among them dust bunnies, long-lost paperclip sculptures, and the collection of discarded Euro-coins and British pennies I’d been keeping in the bottom of a drawer.  It also brought to light magnificent strata of old, long-forgotten photocopies of articles I had pack-rattingly squirreled away over the years.  Since the fall of the government last Friday and the resulting launch of yet another federal electoral campaign, and especially in view of the reams of speculative scribbling and professional political blather that have accompanied the launch of military operations against the Khadafy regime in Libya, one of the buried articles I unearthed seemed particularly timely.  I refer, of course, to George Orwell’s magnificent 1946 piece, “Politics and the English Language.”

The thrust of Orwell’s diatribe against obfuscatory prose is this: the purpose of language is the communication of ideas, which places it in diametric opposition to political language, which “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  Orwell identifies a variety of different sins committed routinely (accidentally as often as deliberately) by the political writer:

·         Deploying metaphors that have been worn-out through over-use (as examples, he offers a number that are still in widespread use today, e.g., ‘toe the line’, ‘ride roughshod over’, ‘ stand shoulder to shoulder with’, ‘play into the hands of’, ‘no axe to grind’, ‘grist to the mill’, ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘swan song’ and ‘hotbed’).  While a clever or novel metaphor may serve the writer’s (or the speaker’s) purpose by “evoking a visual image”, the use of such worn-out or dead metaphors serves only to clutter up an argument with syntactical dead weight;

·         Using what he terms “operators or verbal false limbs” - polysyllabic phrases in place of more accurate single words.  As examples he offers ‘render inoperative’ (break), ‘militate against’ (impede), ‘make contact with’ (touch), ‘play a leading role in’ (affect), and so forth.  Here, too, the passive voice comes into play, generally in conjunction with prepositional phrases that seem designed to dissociate the writer from his prose (“in view of”, “by dint of”, “in the interest of”, “the fact that” - or my own personal besetting sin, “in that context”).  Bad writers also attempt to lend profundity to their work by means of what Orwell calls the “not un-” formulation.  “Possible” becomes “not unlikely”; “favourable” becomes “not entirely undesirable”, and so on;

·         Pretentious diction, or what my second year classical strategy prof used to call “using a Latin polysyllable when an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable will do”.  This is a relatively simple sin to avoid, especially for anyone who speaks both a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon language, as the differences are readily apparent.  Words of Latin origin, he argues, are used to “dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements”.  Foreign words and expressions, similarly, are used to give an air of “culture and elegance”.  “Bad writers”, Orwell argues, “and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones,” leading to the overuse of unnecessarily complex formulations in writing, especially in those fields.  Ironically, Orwell also notes that the jargon of Marxism consists of words transliterated and adapted from Russian, German or French, the languages of violent revolution in the 19th and 20th Centuries - cannibal, petty bourgeois, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, etc.; and,

·         Meaningless words.  Orwell suggests that this lexical offence sin takes two forms: first, the use of language in inapplicable circumstances (as, for example, the attribution of subjective human emotional states to things like art); and second, the use of words which, through repeated over-application, have been drained of all meaning.  This latter category, Orwell argues, includes words like “fascism”, which once had a clear meaning but which now, due to overuse as a political epithet, has been drained of all meaning “except in so far as it signifies ‘something undesirable’.”  The same has happened to once useful words like “democracy”, “socialism”, “freedom”, “patriotic”, “realistic” and “justice”; the author now has to define what he means when he uses them.  And remember, Orwell was writing before there was a country called “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Orwell calls this his “catalogue of swindles and perversions”, a nice, meaty summation of the literary crimes of which we’ve all been guilty at one time or another (I for one am a self-confessed repeat offender), and offers, as an example of the imprecise and ugly prose characteristic of modern writing styles, this passage:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This, Orwell states, is what one would get if one were to “translate” a famous paragraph from Ecclesiastes into modern bureaucratese:  “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  I don’t think there’s any doubt which version more clearly expresses the author’s intent, or indeed which is more inherently beautiful.  Nor is there any doubt which one would survive the editor’s pen in a modern bureaucracy, and which one would be sent back to the author for recrafting.

“Modern writing”, Orwell goes on to argue, “does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.  It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”  We do this, he suggests, because it’s easier; “you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.”  From the point of view of those of us faced with writing on contentious issues in an environment where our words are routinely scrutinized for any potential perception of incompatibility with official policy, there is a further layer of comfort in pre-authorized verbiage; I’m sure I’m not the only writer who remembers being ordered to replace newly-researched and carefully-crafted prose with outdated and ploddingly insipid “approved language” which, because it had already been signed off by this or that manager, was deemed to have achieved a state of inviolate and perpetual perfection.  Such practices invert the very purpose of the written word.

There is yet another comfort in complex linguistic constructions; they isolate the writer from responsibility for his writing, in perception if not in fact.  One eventually adopts the habit of writing phrases like, “In the author’s opinion, it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” instead of the far more concise and accurate, “I think.”  The two phrases mean precisely the same thing, but the former is presumed to sound more objectively scientific when in reality it is simply more abstruse.  There is also the perception – which I think, or at least hope, is incorrect – that polysyllabic qualifiers are somehow less condemnatory than concise, qualitatively accurate descriptions of ideas or events.  We saw an example of this a few weeks ago, when a young politician objected to an immigration pamphlet that characterized so-called “honour killings” as “barbaric,” arguing that “absolutely unacceptable” would be a less offensive formulation.(Note A)  One was left to wonder why, precisely, Canadians should be distressed at the thought of having offended those who murder women and girls for perceived slights to their honour.  The linguistic question, however, devolved upon the failure to recognize that the two terms were neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.  An act, after all, can be unacceptable without being barbaric – electronic identity theft comes to mind – while another, for example the television show “Trailer Park Boys”, might be considered barbaric (using the dictionary definition of “rough or uncultured”) without being deemed unacceptable.  The brouhaha that followed was the result of the sloppy use of language, and its devolution into denunciations and hasty back-pedaling was as entertaining as it was instructive.

Even when we don’t commit these “swindles and perversions” ourselves, we are surrounded by no end of obfuscatory lingo.  Political speeches are often a trove of what was once referred to as “bumf”, as are many if not most policy documents.  Recent publications in our own Department provide some truly stunning examples of convoluted prose that can be remarkably difficult to decrypt.  Such examples (and we’re all aware of at least a few) demonstrate that the quality of language is often entirely disconnected from the quality of the thought that the language is intended to convey; it is as easy to present a good idea in bad writing as it is to present a bad idea in good writing.  What is truly difficult is to express a good idea in good language.  Obviously, it helps if you have a good idea from the outset.

Orwell summarizes his observations by opining that the “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?”

He adds that the writer will probably ask himself two further questions:

“1.       Could I have put it more shortly?

2.         Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?”

In pursuit of good writing, he offers five rules:

“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;”

…and finally,

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

If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure we can all come up with examples of how we’ve broken these rules at one time or another.  I can think of a few dozen examples in the TM I’m currently drafting, and that’s only in the introduction.  Hell, I can think of a few dozen examples in this message!

Of course, there’s really no need to go to all of this trouble over mere words, is there?  After all, as Orwell notes, we can avoid the agony of crafting accurate, expressive language by “throwing [the] mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in.”

They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

“It is at this point,” he concludes, “that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”  Orwell goes on to argue that in the rare circumstances where political writing is not bad, “it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’.  Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”  The prolonged practice of cleaving to orthodoxy in writing and in speech, he warns, turns the author into a machine: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”  This “reduced state of consciousness”, according to Orwell, “if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”  This is a matter of grave concern to the well-being of the free world, given how much of modern politically-derived discourse is dedicated to portraying failures as victories; presenting as utterly certain proposals or hypotheses that are fundamentally not amenable to certainty; stating as fact things that are arrant nonsense; and as Orwell says, mounting a “defence of the indefensible.”

Simplifying our use of English, Orwell concludes, frees us from “the worst follies of orthodoxy.”  If we eschew the formulaic phrases so beloved of bureaucracies, if we refuse to accept their incestuous, obfuscatory dialects as the standard for communication (or as is so often the case, numbing non-communication), then when we say or write something manifestly stupid, it will be obvious – even to the one who wrote it.  It is, after all, difficult to make “lies sound truthful” if one uses words like “lie” and “truth” instead of, for example, “somewhat less than wholly forthright” and “presumably not fundamentally inaccurate”.

Go here for a .pdf copy of Orwell’s piece for your delectation.  You might find, as I did, that it seems to become more applicable every time you read it.

You might also find this link helpful:

It’s a set of hints for translators facing the arduous task of translating government documents into other languages.  I particularly enjoyed this bit of advice: “Non-verbs like “impact” and non-adjectives like “impactful” must be changed to words with real meanings.”

And this one: 

“The second part of the translator’s solution for incomprehensible nonsense is to be aware that the purpose of many such expressions is not to say anything of substance at all. Rather, the author stuck the text in just to occupy space without running the risk of adorning it with content. Such fragments make the letter look longer and appear to say more. They are the old bread that you stuff into the turkey to make it look fatter. With a bit of creativity, a good translator can come up with an equally vapid string of words from the target language and culture. Bureaucratese happens all around the world. Since nothing is really being said, giving the appearance of content without saying anything would be a faithful translation.”

Maybe there’s hope for the Queen's English after all.

Incidentally, it turns out that there doesn’t seem to be a ribbon to protest the abuse of language.(Note B)  The closest ones I could find were the campaigns to “Protest Political Correctness” and in favour of “Less Crap Online!”, both of which use a brown ribbon.  Unfortunately, the same colour was also chosen by the campaigns for “Free Beer Online”, “Chombos Chocolate” (whatever that is), and “Carnie Rights Awareness.”  I guess if we want a ribbon, we’ll have to come up with our own.