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Words to write by

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.† Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements likeMarshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

[…]

4. All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

– Communist pamphlet

[Critique of example 4 above:] In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

[…]

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

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

(ii) Never us 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 outright barbarous.

The passages above are excerpted from George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language“. George Orwell was a reputed crank but he makes some good points. One of my pet peeves about the left is that it tends to indulge in shortcuts in writing that come off sounding like the communist pamphlet in the example shown above. I don’t mean that lefty writers are communists. I only mean that sometimes words are used without much consideration for their actual meaning. For example, what exactly is the meaning of the word “corporatist”? Does it refer to someone who owns a corporation, runs a corporation, has the means to use a corporation for his or her own ends? Does it refer to someone who works for a corporation? Are corporations always evil? And how does accusing a person of corporatism advance the cause of the writer? It may seem obvious to the left who are throwing this word around but what purpose does it serve if it is defined so generally that it can be applied to every instance of bad behavior? And if corporatism is so evil that we must prevent it at any cost, why use the word repeatedly without exploring the roots of what causes it?

I’ll admit that I am also a crank. And I could use an editor. My verbs and nouns don’t often agree, grammatical constructs are frequently written in “stream of consciousness” mode, and I write once, correct infrequently. Maybe that’s because I never feel the result will match my own expectations. Why try to correct something that will never be perfect enough? But then, I am not a professional writer, or a male blogger who has a better shot at scoring a gig at some prestigious online journal.

But one thing I try not to do is obscure my thoughts with shortcuts and the preferred vocabulary of my political group. I get particularly irritated with writers who live by their reputations who are starting to sound like the annoying peasant from the autonomous collective in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As Orwell says, the result sounds like the thoughts are choked an accumulation of tea leaves blocking a sink. Sometimes, I get to the end of an essay and I have no idea what the writer was trying to say. It sounds forceful enough but in what direction?

Writers from all political ideologies do it but it seems to be particularly injurious to writers on the left. We can speculate why this is the case but maybe it would be better to just adopt Orwell’s rules for political writing to see if it improves our image.

Just sayin’.

For more crankiness on the importance of precision in language, read “Less Than Words Can Say” by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. This book was required reading in one of my writing courses many years ago. The man was a prophet.

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