Whenever a passage in George Orwell’s classic “Politics and the English Language” annoys me, I am usually reacting to Orwell’s imprecision. Amid his screed against vague writing and murky thinking, Orwell formulates a sentence or sentiment that gets his essay from whence to where but is true only in a sense or is false on its face. For example, I read in the essay that “The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image,” and I start to imagine other aims for which writers might use metaphors, then I wonder how Orwell presumed to dictate that writers only could aim their metaphors at visual imagery, and so on. In other words, I let Orwell misdirect me with a sentence that appears in the essay only because it is expedient to the argument Orwell is making in, by my count, the eleventh paragraph of his essay. Orwell’s imprecise generalization has set me off. For some time I remain “off.”
Orwell set me off this morning in a different but related manner when I came to “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.” This sentence straightened me up because it described much of Orwell’s writing in “Politics and the English Language.” In that essay Orwell lists some of his likes and dislikes and prescribes five or six rules to eradicate his dislikes. To get to his rules, Orwell must construct a justification. If Orwell was much interested in the details of that justification, I cannot detect such concern in what he wrote.
As a result I now am ruminating about “editing” Orwell’s essay to separate his general emotional meaning — what he disliked and what he preferred — from the rest of his essay. I propose to start from Orwell’s five or six rules near the end of his essay. Thence I propose to isolate every phrase or sentence that directly pertains to one or more rules. Having culled Orwell’s remedial rules and the maladies for which Orwell prescribed those remedial rules, I anticipate that I shall have pared away much of the imprecision and many of the partial truths or untruths from the essay. What I thus include is not the essence of Orwell’s essay; it may be, however, the emotional core of Orwell’s effort.
I shall not find most of what I value about “Politics and the English Language” in that emotional core. Orwell and I bark punctiliously up different pedantries. In what I have edited out I shall find pithy sentiments and clarifying possibilities alongside expedient nonsense and bedeviled details. However, I expect that I shall have reduced the ratio of folderol and sloppiness to words.
Who might counsel me to expect to reduce imprecision and inaccuracy by getting to the emotional center of Orwell’s essay? The fellow who wrote, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” I suspect that Orwell sincerely objected to the writing foibles to cure which he propounded his rules. I further suspect that Orwell concocted broader problems to which he could claim that those writing foibles led. I hope that Orwell did not sincerely believe that mutually reinforcing destruction of English and politics followed from using noun constructions instead of gerunds or using the passive voice.