The Adaptation of Language: An Analysis of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Language is the basis of all human communication; one could even say language is the basis of humanity itself. In the essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell explains the significance of proper and effective language. He examines a less obvious aspect of language deterioration; instead of focusing on blatantly incorrect usage, he focuses on the usage of unclear language, specifically that which is written by well-educated people. Language is not by any means an insignificant or fleeting matter: according to Orwell, people should be concerned about the deterioration of the English language and, therefore, should recognize the reasons for, forms of, and effects of bad language.

A writer may use bad language due to a variety of negative causes, the most obvious reason of which is lack of education. However, critics should focus primarily on the many writers who knowingly use incorrect language, out of sheer carelessness or an aim to deceive readers. Writers who are careless often fall into the pattern of using clichès and “treating words as though they [are] unconnected to reality and therefore producing meanings that are arbitrary and internal to the language rather than engaging with the world.” (Joseph 9) Although these writers are directly lazy, others are lazy in a less obvious way, using poor language to cover up their personal lack of knowledge on a topic. Orwell uses the example of meaningless words to describe this deception: “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way… the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think he means something quite different.” (Orwell 711) Here, Orwell describes the writer who is clearly aware of his bad language, who utilizes it to give the reader a vague positive or negative connotation for the writer’s message. Intentionally vague language can stem from more sinister political purposes too, such as to keep people in the dark so they “will not understand what is happening to them” and therefore “cannot rebel against what they do not understand.” (Joseph 5) In relation to lack of knowledge, a writer may use poor language simply because they do not know “what kind of language will fit what audience”. (Flesch 9) This error is equally unjustifiable, as a writer who wishes to be heard must put in the necessary effort. As all of these reasons for bad language are both negative and curable, society should be concerned with the preservation of proper language.

To vanquish poor language, one must be able to identify offenses. Orwell explains the different forms of bad language as either incorrect grammar and syntax or ineffective language. Although incorrect grammar and syntax may be a result of insufficient education, it is still prevalent in the writings of many well educated authors. These errors are a result of mere carelessness, and are, therefore, inexcusable. When a writer is inattentive towards their grammar, they often ignore their syntax and focus on finishing the product without fine-tuning it. Yet, according to Orwell, bad language is not limited to incorrect grammar and syntax; ineffective language is just as erroneous. This sort of language is not incorrect in a technical sense, but it still has the negative effects of incorrect language. Ineffective language ranges from dead metaphors, meaningless words, and pretentious diction. Orwell writes that dead metaphors are mostly “used without knowledge” and “used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”; they are used carelessly and only lead to confusion. (Orwell 709) Meaningless words are those which have multiple vague definitions, which a reader may pick and choose to suit their viewpoint. To Orwell, “romantic, sentimental, dead, living, freedom, socialism, class, and science” make the list of his undesirables. (Orwell 711) Orwell’s last classification of bad language is pretentious diction. When a writer primps a simple statement with unnecessary or foreign words to make it seem more interesting, they become a culprit of pretentious diction. (Orwell 710) Writers who commit this fallacy will also often “overestimate people’s information”, meaning that they will write in a form that is unfamiliar to the reader in its formality or scientific terms. (Flesch 13) This linguistic mistake may be obvious or subtle, as it is mostly dependent on the writer’s audience. The simple solution is “to find out what people know and what they don’t know, and then to write accordingly.” (Flesch 14)

Although all these errors illustrate the negative nature of bad language, there are greater reasons why poor language is detrimental rather than simply being “incorrect”. The usage of bad language has negative effects on both an individual and on society as a whole. As a result of inattention to language, an individual may lose reputation, self discipline, and critical thinking skills. One’s language is one of the first things a reader or listener notices; therefore, poor language can make one “seem careless, sloppy and slovenly” or even “make readers … think [one doesn’t] know what [they’re] talking about.” (Wilbers) William Zinsser summarizes the relationship between reputation and language skills in the statement that “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.” (Wilbers) On the other hand, when used properly, language can help a writer’s message rather than hurt it. For instance, both pretentious diction and overly academic writing can be cured by simplification. This simplification allows the reader to “read [one’s work] faster, enjoy it more, understand better, and remember longer.” (Flesch 147) In this situation, both the writer and the reader benefit. All of these affected individuals build up society, causing society as a whole to be affected by the preservation or deterioration of language. Since poor language is partly a result of political and economic causes, correct language is essential to “political regeneration”. (Orwell 707) The rise of proper language helps all to think clearly and therefore “serve the interests of truth, rather than merely those of power”. (Joseph 5) Proper language literally gives a voice to all those in society who wish to challenge the upper classes.

In the past, critics have examined the different aspects of language. Yet, as language continues to evolve, the discussion cannot be allowed to dwindle. In fact, Orwell, Joseph, and Flesch would all argue that the fight for proper language is more crucial than ever. Although the modern world is dismissing many characteristics of the past, standardized language must be preserved. To let go of effective communication would be to let go of a central part of the world’s humanity.