Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Clear Language: Practical or Prosiac?

Having just finished reading ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell I went on to read his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ which was suggested reading for our History and Context of Journalism lecture. In reading the latter I noted Orwell’s rules of English language; examples of which were

  • Don’t use metaphors
  • Use plain/simple everyday language
  • Never use a long word, where a short one will do
  • If it is possible to cut a line, cut it
  • Never use the passive voice if you can use the active voice

Having read the essay it was easy to recognise the author of that and the novel were one in the same.

I have to say that the novel was rather dull, it offered a factual account of Orwell’s time on the brink of poverty in Paris and London. I turned the pages will little anticipation or emotion.

It turns out; there is something to be said of ornate language.

Metaphors, similes and such provide perspective, insight. Writers often talk about their voice and what simplifying the English language does is take away that voice.

Elaborate language and detailed descriptions set the scene, set the tone, the mood.

Without these things people and places become lifeless.

Obviously dependant on vocation, reading an account of someone’s daily routine, event by event can become immensely tedious, it’s their reaction, their perspective that we value.

I recently read a novel ‘Buddha Da’ by Anne Donavon, the novel follows a Glaswegian family as their father/husband discovers and turns to Buddhism. The novel is split into chapters each written in first person narrative from the perspective of each family member, each angle is refreshing, each character tells their story in a different way. Were this novel to follow Orwell’s rules the tale would become an agenda of a family. Little more.

Don’t get me wrong there is certainly place for Orwell’s rules, administration is shrouded in jargon and vague, unclear lexis. And like most it takes me hours to dissect. Terms and conditions are usually pages of scrawl, so unclear the reader has little knowledge at all of what he/she is reading. Orwell’s named this language ‘Contagion’, essentially ‘pollution’ of language. Orwell believed contagion was used to hide the truth, which in the case of T’s and C’s is obviously the intention.

There exists an independent body that aims to work with government administrations to clarify their language, they are called the ‘Campaign for Plain English’. I think this is brilliant, political and governmental language should reveal itself, rather than hide behind the metaphorical bush of buzz words and vague phrases.

Horrie, who seems a strong advocate of Orwell’s rules recently patented his ‘bullshit generator’ aiming to decipher elaborate laguage.

Nevertheless (or ‘but’ as Horrie would prefer) plain language has it’s place, it might be in admin, even news journalism. But it is not in literature, music or poetry.

Let us enjoy the beauty of an incomprehensible piece of prose that finds a new way to describe the sway of tree’s branches in the wind.

Take Keats for example….

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


Go on Horrie, I dare you to put that through your ‘Bullshit Generator’


  1. It is not to say that one type of writing is any better than another; or to say that prose is a more worthwhile thing than poetry; but that they are different things. Clarity is the most important thing for prose; but obscurity may be the the most important thing for poetry.

  2. very good blog - but could you please add a link to the course site on your front page as Veronica has done - http:/.journalism.winchester.ac.uk