In a recent New York Times blogpost Paul Krugman responds to a correspondent who complained about the looseness of his writing. Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ seemed a particular irritant. Krugman is only too conscious of the challenge he faces. The subject matter he is dealing with is generally very dry. If he is going to make it accessible to interested non-specialists then it has to be written with some verve. And that may require taking a few stylistic liberties.
Krugman is constantly vigilant against producing indigestible economic stodge. I think he succeeds. Especially if you compare his popular writing with some of his work of professional economic audiences, some of which can be a little stodgy at times. Krugman cites George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English language as his ‘bible’.
I read Krugman’s piece on my phone while on the train. So, being at a loose end, I thought I’d reread Orwell’s essay. Even though it’s one of the most famous pieces of criticism of political writing, I’d forgotten quite how great it is.
Two passages in particular struck me. First:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
For some reason I was reminded of ex-Ministers forced to concede that “The ministerial code has been found to be breached” (By whom? They don’t say), but whose advisors were “not dependent on any transactional behaviour” to maintain their income.
Second, something perhaps even more apparent, and even more urgent, now than it was when Orwell was writing:
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. 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 … lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin, where it belongs.
All writers need to guard against cliché. This impulse should be strengthened by Orwell’s argument: refusing to succumb to the worn-out phrase can contribute positively to the health of political debate. The Independent journalist John Rentoul is currently, and self-consciously, seeking to keep the spirit of Orwell’s argument alive with his Banned List (eg here and here). He’s seeking the banishment of such modern monstrosities as “going forward”, “The truth is… “ (when followed by an opinion or, indeed, a lie), “hard-working families”, or the use of “action” as a verb. Not everyone is keen on what he’s trying to do. But if it does kill off the odd dying metaphor or consign some contemporary verbal refuse to the dustbin then that’s be a service to us all.