Unpacking Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

Every Light Up Learning mentor gets a set amount of "LuL Time" each week, in which they can investigate a topic close to their heart and periodically present what they've been working on to the rest of the team.

Mentor and trustee Will Ferguson kicked things off last month by presenting on George Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." Here's what he had to say about it:


Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language" is probably my favourite essay. Writing is one of my great loves, and I have been thinking quite a lot about essay structure recently, so it seemed natural to use my LuL Time to look at how Orwell structured this essay.

 George Orwell. (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/MYFF30aYYvU)

George Orwell. (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/MYFF30aYYvU)

Orwell argues that unclear political writing is both a symptom and a cause of unclear political thinking, but both can be avoided through attention and awareness. This is a deceptively complex idea, so I'll break it down. Orwell uses a good analogy: somebody might start drinking because they're sad, but ultimately become more sad because of drinking. Similarly, you might start using meaningless political jargon because you're scared of saying something that will make you look bad, but then you'll get used to using that jargon, and it will affect your ability to think clearly about politics.

One way in which many of us encounter this kind of murky language is actually through office politics. Management speak words and phrases like 'streamlining', 'global sense', and 'ongoing enterprise' can all hide difficult truths by being vague or stale through overuse.

 Just ask Michael Scott. (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/oL9n30aYVyT)

Just ask Michael Scott. (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/oL9n30aYVyT)

I liked the clarity of the essay's structure and its prose. There are three parts. The first introduces Orwell's argument and a possible counter-argument to it. The second gives five examples of unclear political writing, lists four faults common to all of them, and analyses why people write like this, before finally offering four questions you can ask yourself to help you avoid such writing. The third and final part restates his argument and gives six rules for writing clearly. There is a logical progression between sentences and paragraphs: a general point is often followed by an example and a development from that example. This structuring seemed almost scientific to me.

However, the essay is perhaps deceptively clear and prescriptive, and, after some discussion with another mentor, I realised that it’s not actually scientific. Orwell gave a hypothesis at the beginning and presented evidence, but he was more arguing for the hypothesis than testing it. What’s more, Orwell is far from the ideally impartial figure of the scientist. Indeed, his partiality and emotional bias reverberate through the piece in forceful statements that sound good but, on closer inspection, actually fall into one of the categories that Orwell criticised: vague terms of approval or disapproval that don't really mean anything. Orwell was, however, honest enough to recognise that he was frequently breaking his own rules in the essay.

 George Orwell: rule-breaker (and heartbreaker). (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/KaEx30aYWVA)

George Orwell: rule-breaker (and heartbreaker). (Photo credit: http://ow.ly/KaEx30aYWVA)

At the end of the session, I was asked how what I'd learned would affect my own writing. Oftentimes, I try to summarise all of the information in a paragraph in its first sentence. I saw that Orwell wasn't following this rule, putting what seemed like first-sentence-worthy ideas in the middle of paragraphs. Yet, his writing didn't seem to suffer because of it. This has given me the idea of being a bit more free in my own writing, which I'm excited about.