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Copy of Politics and the English Language. 1946
Transcript of Copy of Politics and the English Language. 1946
Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)
2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic PUT UP WITH for TOLERATE, or PUT AT A LOSS for BEWILDER.
Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)
3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?
Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)
Did those sound good to you?
If you liked the previous passages and thought them to be clear, concise,
vividly written examples of the English Language, that's unfortunate, because...
* How would you like to write?
* What are the features of 'good writing'?
* Consider the following writing samples
compiled by Orwell in his essay, "Politics
and the English Language".
What do you think of these examples?
Are they examples of good writing?
Are they how you would like to write?
A 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?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your 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 that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Here's where Orwell will really blow
your mind! As a final point, he writes:
'If thought corrupts language,
language can also corrupt thought'
What does this mean?
Yugoslavia 1990s civil war.
A missile hits the wrong target.
Rape, murder, burning down homes.
Taking suspects to countries where torture is less 'problematic.' (Egypt rather than UK.)
Disguising meaning serves TWO purposes then.
1. To deliberately hide what we are uncomfortable saying.
2. To hide the fact that what we are saying, is actually
saying nothing at all.
Orwell doesn't agree with you!
"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not....[Modern English] prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."
The topic of his argumentative essay is that skillful usage of English language is in decline, and the unusual statement he uses as his lead definitely hooks the reader: "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it."
Orwell's thesis is: "Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these bad habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
Or in Mr. V's own words:
writers of the English language have plenty of bad habits, and whether you are a professional writer or not, you should make an effort to improve your language usage. Doing so will not only make your message more clear, but will help you think more clearly and lead to what he calls "political regeneration".
Here's a perfect example of what Orwell means:
Let's return to Orwell's own first example:
I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. - Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)
This is what Orwell finds wrong with it:
"Professor Laski uses five negatives in 53 words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip ALIEN for akin, making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increases the general vagueness."
Orwell groups language misuse into 4 categories.
Operators, or Verbal False Limbs
- "A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image."
- Dead metaphors have "reverted to ordinary words"
- In between the two are "worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves."
Examples: toe the line, an axe to grind, Achilles' heel, swan song.
Listen closely to the fire chief for a modern day example:
When given another chance, this contestant made a much more succinct, coherent, and admirable answer:
“So this is not OK,” she said. “It needs to be equal pay for equal work. It’s hard enough already to earn a living, and it shouldn’t be harder just because you’re a woman.”
- Rather than choosing appropriate, simple language, here the author gives banal statements
the appearance of being profound.
- Can you "translate" some of Orwell's examples into simpler language?: render inoperative, having the effect of, play a leading part in, on the hypothesis that, a development to be expected in the near future...
What happens when someone unsuccessfully attempts to use verbal false limbs to appear intelligent? This happens!
- Orwell is against words that are used:
* to "dress up simple statements and given an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments" (e.g. constitute, liquidate, categorical)
* to dignify sordid politics or glorify wars. (e.g. epoch-making, inexorable, jackboot, mailed fist)
* He is particularly unimpressed by writers who use words of Latin or Greek origin to appear intelligent, when simpler Saxon ones will do. (e.g. expedite, ameliorate, sub-aqueous)
Nobody explains pretentious diction quite like George Carlin (just plug your ears during the final few seconds!)
- Long passages in modern writing are almost completely lacking in meaning.
e.g. "When one [art] 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 of 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."
As the word "practice" is repeated in the following clip, it loses meaning and so does Iverson's argument:
Euphemisms are often used by political writers and journalists to deliberately misguide the reader into believing that terrible things are not as bad as might otherwise seem.
Defenseless villages are bombarded from the from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets.
Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry.
People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labour camps.
TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS
ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS
How else can you avoid being a bad writer? Orwell offers 6 rules.
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use 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 barbarous.
and the English Language
Thanks for Your Attention!
Despite the biting tone of the writer's voice throughout his essay, Orwell's conclusion is hopeful:
"One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some JACKBOOT, ACHILLES' HEEL, HOTBED, MELTING POT, ACID TEST, VERITABLE INFERNO or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs."
Some Bonus Footage:
Voice, Languge, Tone
In line with his advice not to use the passive voice,
Orwell uses an active, consistent voice in the first person
e.g. "I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought."
The tone and language
, though the use of the
makes it feel less so. He
the authors in his introductory examples ("Each of these passages has faults of its own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them"), and
("In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing" and "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia."). His conclusion, which urges us to throw "verbal refuse...into the dustbin where it belongs" is at the same time
humourous, scornful, and optimistic
As this is an essay on how to improve one's writing, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is expertly written.
some passages have several long (confusing) sentences
in a row. e.g. paragraph 2 has 9 sentences with an average length of 26 words and no sentence with less than 8 words.
Orwell uses a number of
, all of which are examples of
In paragraph 4, Orwell uses a simile describing “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
This simile is rhetorically effective because it is unusual (so that we instantly pay attention to it), because it creates a vivid picture, and because its tone is comic.
In paragraph 5, while warning against dead or dying metaphors, Orwell himself uses a metaphor that is especially vivid when he refers to “a huge dump of worn-out metaphors.”
The word “dump” implies an extremely large and disorganized pile, heaped up as if it were a gigantic collection of discarded refuse, of no importance to anyone.
Finally, in paragraph 16, Orwell uses a metaphor to wish that more people would interest themselves “in the job” of chasing dead expressions from the language.
This implies that taking care of language is a common responsibility (almost everyone, after all, has a “job”), that doing so is not especially difficult, and that great success can be accomplished if everyone does his or her own small part of a larger common task.
To demonstrate the decline of the English language, Orwell sites
(from the Bible) and "translates" it into Modern English in a confusing style like that used by current writers. He is
appealing to authority
as a persuasive technique.
Using the Bible as a credible, well-written text is an example of
1. As an English teacher, it's tough not to admire an essay that gives a list of writing tips.
11. Orwell views politicians and what they say with contempt, which is an attitude that is always in fashion.
...But both these aspects of the essay are problematic.
His essay comforts the kind of English writer who is suspicious of words from beyond English shores. If you ever feel tempted to say "status quo" or "cul de sac", for instance, Orwell will sneer at you for "pretentious diction". But are these words pretentious? Because these phrases are of "foreign" origin. Orwell declares, "there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language." Yet if we strip the language down to what there is a "real need" for and allow only the words that Orwell thinks necessary, the resulting stunted lexicon is itself a kind of functionalist, impoverished Newspeak.
Should we just assume that everything politicians say is hot air? To do so would be to let our guards down. Political rhetoric now as in Orwell's day exploits not only euphemism ("austerity") and loaded metaphor ("fiscal cliff"): in our time, weaponised soundbites are deliberately engineered to smuggle the greatest amount of persuasion into the smallest space, to be virally replicated on rolling news. Rather than ignoring it, we should listen all the more closely to this stuff, because you need to bring the buried argument out into the open in order to defeat it.
1. According to Orwell, Modern English prose consists less and less of words chosen for their ___________, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated __________.
a) meaning, hen-house
b) usage, pigpen
c) style, stable
2. True or False? Orwell believes that the problems with the writings of modern English authors are beyond repair.
3. Orwell groups language misuse into these four categories:
a) George W. Bushisms, Allen Iversonisms, Beauty Contestantisms
b) Dying Similes, Verbal False Limbs, Pretentious Words, Meaningless Diction
c) Dying Metaphors, Operators, Pretentious Diction, Meaningless Words
4. Disguising meaning serves this purpose:
a) To deliberately hide what the writer is uncomfortable saying.
b) To hide the fact that what the writer is saying is actually nothing at all.
c) All of the above
5. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself which of these questions?
a) What am I trying to say? What words will express it?
b) What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
c) Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
d) All of the above
6. Orwell's rules of writing include:
a) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
b) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
c) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
d) All of the above
7. "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought"...
a) Wasn't even from this essay!
b) Is a phrase Orwell used in his resignation letter from the Burmese Police.
c) Means that if we rely on language that is pre-chosen for us, our thoughts themselves are susceptible to being pre-chosen as well.
8. True or False? "Politics and the English Language" is written in the third person, contributing to the formal tone of the essay.
9. True or False? Because one of his writing rules is brevity, Orwell primarily uses short sentences.
10. True or False? When attempting to achieve success on an Essay presentation in ENG4U0, modelling after the example provided by one's English teacher is a wise course of action!