Not Unuseful Linguistic Tactics Have Been Well Chosen

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell argued that writers should do without the passive voice and the “not un-” formation.  I long have had problems with each of these alleged rules, but let’s look at the rules’ virtues.

Orwell is correct to insist that writers should not hide agency behind the passive voice.  Indeed, we might rephrase Orwell’s fourth rule — “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” — as a nearly absolute guide for readers.  Any time the passive is deployed, a reader should ask what information or revelation lurks behind the passive voice.

Orwell is also correct that the “not un-” formation clogs conversation and prose often and often without good reason.  Anyone so cowardly or polite that she or he cannot say that a performance was “OK” but must resort to “not unentertaining” should simply write or say nothing.  Writers who use “not un-” to duck and cover should incline readers to look elsewhere.  I can go that far with Orwell.

Beyond such prosaic agreements, however, Eric Arthur Blair was wrong-headed in each rule.

The passive voice is immensely useful for communication when it eases writer and reader or talker and listener past some sticking point.  If an editorialist wants to fend off an objection that is common but beside the point, the editorialist is both polite and prudent to dismiss the objection with “it is often remarked” rather than attributing the objection to this speaker or that critic.  One need not use the passive voice to defuse or depersonalize disputes, but I see no harm in leaving names and active verbs out of the communication.  Some such uses of the passive voice invert the ad hominem fallacy.  That is, the passive voice MAY usefully direct the audience to the principles or claims at stake because the expression of the principle or claim is not attributed.  If I may disagree with Keith Olbermann’s presumption without attacking Keith Olbermann and without risking responses that dwell on Rachel Maddow’s variant on Keith Olbermann’s point or myriad other rephrasings of the claim or principle, the passive voice seems to me a suitable way in which to focus attention away from the speaker and toward the speech.

I think that “mistakes were made” will sometimes fend off recriminations and guilt and defensiveness.  I presume that anyone thrown off the scent by “mistakes were made” likely would be distracted by other flim-flam.  I also believe that resolving never to deploy the passive voice is foolish over-reaction.  As I have commented many times, the passive voice is one of the two leading voices in English.  Stuck with but two tools of a sort, we should not resolve to do without the one just because it might be abused.

Mr. Blair’s other rule is foolish as well.

The “not un-” formation dimensionalizes dichotomies.  The critic who found a movie “not unentertaining” rejected a choice between “we are amused” and “we are not amused.”  The critic’s audience immediately grasps that the critic cannot pronounce the film good and will not on that account pronounce it bad.  Instead the critic presumes that “exhilarating” and “tedious” have ample intermediate states or degrees.  In a similar manner the writer who prefers not to be shrill or dogmatic writes more civilly by moderating his or her discourse.  She or he chooses litotes — “not too shabby” — or other polite manners of speaking or writing.  For such purposes, the “not un-” may work well, especially if the author aims to deny some pejorative while stopping short of the diametric meliorative.

In the third of his notes to “Politics and the English Language” Eric Blair went after the “not un-” like a cunning schoolboy:  “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”  What moron was that legerdemain supposed to take in?  Mr. Blair evidently wanted the gullible to chuckle because AND despite the norms of usage by which

  1. a dog that is neither black nor white would always or almost always be characterized — forgive the foregoing passive verb — as gray or spotted or freckled or any of dozens of other adjectives;
  2. a rabbit  neither large nor small would always or almost always be described by the phrase “a rabbit” [as another of Mr. Blair’s rules directs, by the way];  and
  3. a field that is not verdant would either be called “a field” [if the degree of verdancy was irrelevant] or be described via any of dozens descriptors if it mattered how green was the field.

A reader of any sophistication, by contrast, would note that Mr. Orwell’s not un-Swiftian sally — I hope disingenuously — was not completely beside a valid point but nearly completely beside any valid point.  For impact, Orwell selected a caricature that no writer would indulge.  If the “not un-” were the menace to understanding that Orwell presumed and a usage fashionable in political writing for no reason, maybe Orwell’s not-inspired humor would make me scowl less.

In sum, the “not un-” formation provides an alternative to dualistic, diametrical [non]thinking.  If that is not a good think, at least it’s not a bad think.


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