Blogging and the English Language
Posted by Jake Magnum | March 11, 2019
With today’s abundance of unreviewed and unrefined blog posts, the problems with the English language identified by George Orwell 75 years ago are now more widespread than ever.
If you are a blogger, I hope this article makes apparent the relevance of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to the fast-paced writing style of those who blog for a living. This review of Orwell’s essay aims to help you avoid some of the major pitfalls of the average blogger’s writing style.
I should state here (just as Orwell does in his essay) that the problem is with the state of the English language, not with English writers. I don’t believe bloggers are lazy or incompetent. The problem is not restricted to independent hobby bloggers, either; the prose of many journalists, critics, and other professionals is often devoid of any real meaning. No, I don’t believe bloggers are the reason our language is so often mistreated. Instead, I think two more credible factors are at play.
The first factor is that many online writers are pressured to produce a certain quantity of articles that meet SEO criteria rather than articles that meet high quality standards. Informing or entertaining the reader are secondary to getting clicks. As a result, most bloggers don’t have the time they need to write as well as they can. The second factor is that many bloggers aren’t exposed to enough exceptional writing from which they could learn, as much of what they read suffers from the first factor.
Two Major Problems
Orwell identifies two major problems with English writing: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.” Orwell argues that these problems are indicative of the fact that “[t]he writer either has 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.”
As I hope to make evident by writing this article, Orwell’s argument is more valid now than it was when he first presented it. The examples used throughout this article (which, sadly, were very easy to find) will show the ways in which much writing still, as Orwell puts it, “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” In other words, many writers forgo their duty of “picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” Orwell examines that there is a straightforward reason for all of this: It is easy. However, the ease with which you can use ready-made phrases comes “at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
Before I continue, I would like to express that I think the writers of the examples I critique below are relatively good. I do not intend to expose unspeakably terrible writing through the passages I present. I purely intend to explain how the state of the English language is such that even decent writers are unknowingly tactless when choosing their words.
Four Types of Mistakes
Orwell discusses several mistakes often found in the prose of his time, the four most substantial of which I discuss here. Take a glance at a few blogs, and you will quickly see that such mistakes have prevailed, and even flourished, over the past three-quarters of a century. Presently, I provide Orwell’s definitions of the four errors. Each definition is accompanied by an example from a recent online post and a solution based on the advice given in “Politics and the English Language.”
Mistake #1: Dying metaphors
Dying metaphors include phrases such as “play into the hands of,” which are “merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” It is effortless to slip a dying metaphor into a piece of writing. Many writers will automatically express the first item in a long list of problems as “the tip of the iceberg,” or will follow up with something like, “and we’re just scratching the surface.” Such writing is found so often online that many bloggers don’t even realize that one of their jobs as a writer is to create original expressions.
An article published recently on a news site contains the following sentence, in which the author has used a dying metaphor:
All of the local ballot measures that would have raised taxes went down in flames last year.
“Went down in flames” has been overused to the point that the image of a flaming aircraft falling and crashing to the ground is not evocative in the slightest.1 However, writers still insert such phrases into their work because doing so requires no thought or inspiration, much in the way it is easier to cover another artist’s song that to compose your own music. However, by making things easy on yourself by using previously-used expressions, you are not contributing anything unique through your work.
If you habitually use dying metaphors, keep in mind what Orwell posits near the end of his essay:
Rule #1: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
When you are tempted to use a dying metaphor, there are two things you can do to stop yourself. Ideally, you will think of your own metaphor and use it in place of the dying metaphor. However, if you cannot conjure up a clever and suitable phrase, it is better to present your idea in simple terms rather than with recycled diction, which is what I have done in the revision below.
All of the local ballot measures that would have raised taxes failed tragically last year.
Mistake #2: Operators, or false verbal limbs
Orwell explains that false verbal limbs “save [writers] the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry.” He offers examples such as “exhibit a tendency to” and “serve the purpose of.” False verbal limbs result in mediocre sentences. Instead of using strong verbs that can be visualized or felt (e.g., cry, eat, sit, speak, swim), the writer uses often-wordy verb phrases headed by a general-purpose verb, such as exhibit or serve as used in Orwell’s examples above.
Observe the following passage from a recent article on Mashable.
On the feminist front, films like CAM and Suspiria went to extremes to reflect on female sexuality and loss of agency, boring in on some central themes of the #MeToo movement.
This sentence uses many words to convey relatively little meaning. Such is commonplace in blogs, as many bloggers choose phrases that make them sound relatable, such as “went to extremes,” instead of choosing the words that best portray their message. Within the thirty-one words of our example, the author used two false verbal limbs comprising three weak verbs (“went to extremes to reflect on” and “boring in on”) as well as a redundant introductory phrase (“on the feminist front”).
To avoid using false verbal limbs, follow Orwell’s advice:
Rule #2: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Doing this forces the writer to choose livelier verbs that naturally make sentences more concise. If the writer fails to do this, they will almost certainly produce text akin to a movie with amazing special effects but with an unexceptional plot. I have rewritten the example from above using Orwell’s recommendation.
Films like CAM and Suspiria unreservedly share several themes with the feminist #MeToo movement, such as female sexuality and loss of agency.”
We now have a more concise sentence at twenty-two words. Most notably, the false verbal limb “went to extremes to reflect on” has been replaced by the crisper “unreservedly share.” The intended meaning of this sentence is much more striking than it was in the original.
Mistake #3: Pretentious diction
Orwell states that pretentious diction is used to “dress up,” “add scientific impartiality,” or “give an air of culture or elegance” to a sentence. These words include those which do not provoke an image or feeling (e.g., phenomenon, element, effective, promote, constitute, utilize, etc.) and foreign words for which there is no need, as we have English words for them (e.g., sans).
While the writer of the above example failed to use immersive, image-rendering verbs and nouns, the meaning of the sentence was still determinable because she used every-day English words. We will now look at a passage in which the writer has done the opposite: While he has packed his prose with evocative verbs and nouns to paint a vivid image, he distracts the reader from this image by using fancy words.
One roundabout has a life-size bronze effigy of three spiritually ecstatic paisanos: one thumps a knee-held drum (caja), another scrapes a ribbed sugarcane stick called a guacharaca and the third dude, the singer, squeezes a diatonic accordion. This is it: Valledupar’s abiding raison d’etre — vallenato music.
The writer of the above passage uses a few words that we can classify as pretentious diction. Effigy, for example, is a somewhat uncommon English word that has more recognizable forms (e.g., statue, sculpture, likeness). This is forgivable, though, as any reader who is unfamiliar with this word can look it up.
The worst use of pretentious diction in the above passage is raison d’etre. There is no sensible way to translate this term into English. Even when the reader is familiar with this phrase, the reader’s definition of it will almost always differ from the writer’s.
Orwell’s rule regarding pretentious diction is as follows:
Rule #3: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
I have attempted to rewrite the passage above with this rule in mind (my alterations are underlined).2
One roundabout has a life-size bronze statue of three spiritually ecstatic musicians: one thumps a knee-held drum (caja), another scrapes a ribbed sugarcane stick called a guacharaca and the third dude, the singer, squeezes a diatonic accordion. This is it: the one thing about Valledupar that will forever be attractive to tourists and adored by locals — vallenato music.
My final change to this passage exemplifies my argument against pretentious diction. This revision is based on my guess of what the writer meant by raison d’etre and is not likely what the writer actually meant. As mentioned above, I could not sensibly use the direct English translation — reason for existing — because it cannot be what the writer meant. Since he paired it with the adjective abiding, the writer surely wanted to evoke a strong feeling, which reason for existing does not achieve.
If the reader is to extract any meaning from this phrase, they are forced to interpret what the writer means, and I suspect the reader’s interpretation, like mine, will not be close to the writer’s intended meaning.
Just as it would be absurd to give an auto shop your car’s engine in exchange for a new paint job, it is unwise to choose the flashiness of pretentious diction over the utility of every-day English words.
Mistake #4: Meaningless words
When Orwell writes of meaningless words, he refers to words which are meaningless “in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.” He provides several examples (e.g., romantic, democracy, justice), each of which has “several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”
A recent book review published on The New Yorker’s website indicates that this mistake can be found even in respected publications.
Silvie is alive to nature, and fascinated by the mummified bog people unearthed in that part of the country. But she chafes against her father’s manifold rules for historical authenticity. He longs to re-create a past when, as he imagines, ‘women managed well enough’ toiling in submission, and true Britons had not yet been corrupted by foreign elements.
The passage contains several phrases which do not mean anything in particular, such as “alive to nature” and “corrupted by foreign elements.” Because of this, the reader is left unsure what the book is about. By the end of the review, the reader can conclude that the reviewer enjoyed the book, but they won’t quite know why she enjoyed it or whether they should read it themselves.
Orwell explains how to solve the problems caused by meaningless words throughout his essay, and so he does not offer a specific rule to remedy this issue. This is partially because a writer shouldn’t stop using meaningless words altogether. When used skillfully, abstract writing can render a desired emotional effect; however, such is generally the purpose of poetry and not of book reviews.
Still, a book reviewer may use meaningless words, so long as they abide by a rule that I would like to propose here:
Rule #4: If you wish to use meaningless words to create a certain effect, make sure you give such words some semblance of meaning through concrete examples.
In a different section of the book review mentioned above, the writer does just this and, in doing so, provides a coherent description of an abstract concept.
The way Moss conjures up the dark magic and vestigial landscapes of ancient Britain reminded me a little of the horror movie “The Wicker Man,” from 1973, or of the music made in the sixties by groups like Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
Notice that this example would be just as difficult to extract meaning from as the first example if the writer had excluded the concrete terms, “The Wicker Man” and “the music of Fairport Convention and Pentangle.”
Moss conjures up the dark magic and vestigial landscapes of ancient Britain.
While this sentence creates an emotional impression, the reader will quickly become lost while navigating through such writing without having identifiable objects to use as signposts.
A Challenge to Bloggers
Late in his essay, Orwell writes a single sentence that sums up his piece: “What is above all needed is for the meaning to choose the word, and not the other way about.” He explains that “it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards, one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover one’s meaning.”
As I said at the beginning of this article, I think bloggers often fail to write in the way Orwell would want them to because the blogging industry refuses to allow it. It’s a quantity-over-quality business with tight deadlines to be met, ‘like’ buttons to be clicked, posts to be shared, and money to be made. The professional blogger doesn’t have time to make sure each word they use has a purpose and to improve those which don’t.
I used to put pressure on myself to post at least twice a week. However, revisiting Orwell’s essay has made me realize that I shouldn’t use self-imposed deadlines to motivate myself to write. And my goal for writing shouldn’t be to increase traffic to my company’s website. Instead of spending a few hours in total to write this post, I spent an hour or two a few days per week over the course of several weeks. Traffic to my website has decreased a little in the meantime, but I’ve never been prouder of anything that I’ve posted.
If you’re a blogger, I would like to challenge you to spend an hour a day over the next month to work on the best blog post you think you can produce. Write something that you’ll be proud of not because of how many comments or shares it gets but because you had something important to say and you took the time to say it the best way you could.
1 A writer could perhaps get away with using a dying metaphor if it is used humorously (e.g., “The fire department’s proposal for extra funding went down in flames.”) Even this, however, would often be met with a groan rather than a chuckle.
2 I have not italicized a few of the foreign words used in the passage because not all of them are used pretentiously. Caja and guacharaca are not examples of pretentious diction, firstly because they do not have English equivalents that the writer could have chosen (these are the proper names for the specific instruments described), and secondly because the writer adequately defines these terms so that the average English-speaking reader can understand them.
Foreman, A. (2018, December 28). How 2018 made the elusive horror renaissance official. Mashable. Retrieved from: https://mashable.com
Keep reducing response times. (2019, January 8). La Junta Tribune. Retrieved from: https://www.lajuntatribunedemocrat.com
Khambatta, K. (2018, December 28). In Columbia, you hear music, you dance. Condé Nast Traveller. Retrieved from: https://www.cntraveller.in
Orwell, G. (1945, 2013). Politics and the English language [Kindle edition]. London: Penguin Books. Retrieved from Amazon.ca
Talbot, M. (2019, January 2). Sarah Moss’s “Ghost Wall,” a Slender Novel That Evokes Existential Dread. The New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com