Rediscovering The Point Of Language

Seventy years after Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, plain speaking now means avoiding not only jargon but pointless brevity

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George Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought (©FILE PHOTO/AP/PA IMAGES)

“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.” This grim observation opened George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” 70 years ago last month. Despite the cult status that his paean for plain speaking has enjoyed, English prose is now in direr straits: not only are examples of clear and attractive writing few and far between, they are also depressingly hard to unearth. To what institutions or individuals should one turn nowadays for lucid and cogent discussion? Political discourse is more obfuscatory and bet-hedging than ever; newspapers are adopting an increasingly pared-down, smart-phone-friendly register; TV newscasters are finding more banal ways to convey complex information to the viewer; documentaries shrink from documenting and discussing the difficult for fear of taxing their dwindling audiences; much of the public sector and business world has moved beyond meaningful verbal communication: clients and customers are less trouble when bemused than when engaged.

Why should we be in such a “bad way”? The English language combines an enviably rich vocabulary with supple and sensitive syntax to give precise, powerful and nuanced expression. Yet several circumstances now put the natural and unencumbered use of English under threat: alongside the tendency of most publications (print and digital) towards brevity of expression, social media almost ubiquitously privileges the short and simple over the long and complex. It is not an exaggeration to say that the production of lengthier, more involved prose is becoming something of a minority pursuit, cordoned off — by both those outside and inside — as the preserve of isolated groups in society.

Why should this be acceptable? Life in the modern world, the questions it prompts and the debates it demands are manifold and complex; the form and language to discuss and resolve such issues need commensurate complexity. Although in certain quarters this is well understood — in-depth magazine pieces, sparse patches of newspaper comment, outwards-facing academic research — the range and reach of these platforms are shrinking, by design or by default. As the Independent sadly evanesces from physical existence, the New Day, which went into circulation in February as the first new British newspaper in a generation, actively avoids lengthy content and leader-style comment, instead suggesting its readers digest it within the half-hour. While brevity and concision should have their place in all media, they should not hold sway at the cost of content and point.

Advertising slogans are the most notorious offenders in treating English with disdain: companies readily embrace unmeaning collocations of words to create phrases whose obscurity suggests an air of sublimity — or perhaps ensures memorability through unintelligibility. What is the point of “i’m lovin’ it” (McDonald’s, who know you to “be lovin’ it”), “make. believe” (Sony, who issue such vague and unconnected commands), “High Performance. Delivered.” (Accenture, who speak in meaningless quasi-telegraphic bursts), “Let’s build happy” (Lego, who involve us in the child-like commingling of adjective, verb and noun), or “Be legacy” (Stella Artois, who may think this imperative gains meaning after a pint or six)? These examples reflect not just desperate advertising but the misguided belief that the obscure intercourse of grandiose abstract terms creates chin-clutching profundity.

Yet this vice of pointless brevity has spread beyond the e-smoke-filled boardrooms of advertising agencies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the unfiltered posturing of social media. Of course, it is not just younger generations and celebrity types who have made this their preferred conduit for written communication but also politicians, businesses, charities, universities and any other organ that believes it needs a “voice” in the frenetic digital world. Whether that belief is merited is another issue. The fundamental problem is that social media rarely offers the scope to treat difficult and intricate issues that frustrate superficial summaries; even if such sites could find the means to distil detail into digestible form, their users would typically lack the time to peruse them. If not just those listening but also those speaking shirk the challenge of debating the complex in its complexity, where is there space for deeper thought and argument?

Twitter, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, both reflects and compounds this problem: while its restriction of messages to 140 characters allows for sharp, quick-firing and pithy comment, it effectively renders the complex structuring of thought impossible. Although one can string together a set of numbered tweets to state something in greater detail, if each is grammatically self-standing, the result will be mere parataxis — a series of parallel comments without any clear indication of their interrelation and relative importance. By contrast, competent continuous prose requires the structuring of syntax, whereby less important ideas are subordinated to the thrust of main clauses; just as the complex sentence requires the careful structuring of thought, the paragraph in turn requires the careful structuring of argument. This is to the benefit of writer and reader alike: while well-structured argument takes time to craft, it merits and rewards the time its readers will invest in its content.

Brevity and concision do not themselves pose a problem; but the unnecessary disaggregation of complicated topics into fragmented, often meaningless utterances very much does. When thought is piled upon thought like Pelion upon Ossa, without any discernible broader structure, such statements not only lose intelligible punctuation but also any apparent purpose. While it is an alluring challenge to express big ideas succinctly, it is patronising and offensive to do so without point. Therefore, although Twitter does champion witty succinctness, it also leave waters hopelessly muddied: “twitterstorms” are stormy, not because conflicting views are aired, but because they involve chaotic and confused blasts in a medium that cannot sustain prolonged debate or patient argumentation.

In January it was rumoured that Twitter’s 140-character limit would expand to allow longer (and more complex) comment. Users raged at the prospective loss of its USP and (one suspects) the possibility of having to work through challenging issues in detail. Jack Dorsey, the CEO, duly tweeted that no such change would be made, apparently unaware of the irony that his tactful message appropriated more than 1,300 characters. If the form is not going to change, perhaps the frequency could? Good English does not waste words and, with a restriction of a tweet per day (or even per hour?), careful thought might encourage a new generation of great epigrammatists and aphorists, adept and acute commentators to rival Bacon, Johnson, Wilde, and Geoffrey Madan.

As it stands, even complex and involved issues are shoe-horned into a manifestly inappropriate form. Take something as nuanced and protean as the European question. Here are three Twitter contributions from the heart of the debate: “British businesses would face more red tape if UK exits EU as they trade with Continent + 50 other countries with free trade deals with EU” (George Osborne); “The PM is clear: the Leave campaigns cannot cannot (sic) tell you what ‘Leave’ looks like” (Britain Stronger in Europe); “Govt said EU court would protect principle of subsidiarity but ECJ has never struck down law for breach of this” (Vote Leave). If such opaque snippets reflect how the Chancellor and pro- or anti-EU campaigns wish to conduct their debates with the public, the referendum may as well be decided now by coin toss.

Amidst such wilful or enforced obscurantism, it is unsurprising that there is a keen appetite in modern society for politicians who set forth their views with lucidity and cogency. Although Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour conference claim to promote “Straight talking. Honest politics” (the punctuation will not surprise), this aspiration is yet to be realised — or apparently even to be demanded of him. By contrast, the alarming rise of Donald Trump is intimately linked with his direct, no-nonsense talk; the travesty is that his mode of speech seems to weigh heavier with the electorate than what he actually says. Has the natural desire for clarity combined with the misguided fetish for brevity spawned an attitude that privileges blunt and unfiltered nonsense over multifaceted and nuanced commonsense?

If so, what can be done? Notwithstanding dismal reflections in pieces like this, despair would be idle and unduly pessimistic. Elegant, engaging and pellucid writing requires only a clear sense of what needs to be said and of the relative importance of each constituent part. The first task requires some thought, the second some training in grammar. To obviate the notorious difficulty of learning the grammar of one’s native language, the study of another language is paramount, especially if its grammar and syntax are models of clarity. The crucial contention is that the functions and faculties of English need to be appreciated from without as well as from within.

Grammar schools, whose name derives from their mission to teach Latin grammar, have pointed for centuries in the right direction. I like many learned the workings of English grammar and syntax from seeing how the Latin language operates, which through the intricate precision of its morphology lays its structure of thought before the reader. Latin does not allow for waffle or for redundancy or for unwarranted ambiguity; its words cannot but speak a message, which cannot but be arranged in a way that packages and presents its meaning as it should be understood. As a result, to engage in the act of translating English into Latin requires the distillation of the notoriously vague and abstract structure of our language down to its core, essential meaning. This is an exciting and salutary intellectual exercise that pupils and teachers have long embraced.

Indeed, it is a source of encouragement not just that Latin remains a keenly studied subject in secondary (not to mention primary and preparatory) schools and is recognised as a subject for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) but also that a number of recent approaches to teaching the language (such as those of N.M. Gwynne and E.A. Clarke) have put its remarkable grammatical ingenuity and syntactical flair at the very heart of that process. Latin qualifications at both GCSE and A Level allow for the translation of English into Latin, and new textbooks continue to be written in this field. The reward of this lesson is simple: anyone who learns the fundamental operations of Latin will struggle both to write vapid or meaningless English and to tolerate it without complaint. Given the riches afforded by the English language it would be a collective disgrace to the Anglophone world not to offer all encouragement and opportunity for writers to deploy them. For so long as readers expect clarity from writers, such precise and structured prose will always be in demand.

It is easy to reel off a list of great prose stylists — Browne, Gibbon, Hazlitt, Carlyle, Arnold, Housman, Wodehouse — but there is no reason why good writing should be the preserve of the past. Hugh Trevor-Roper, himself a bastion of limpid prose, offered to the world his magisterial Ten Commandments for good English style, the third of which bears repetition: “Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinate.” Clarity paves the way for point, and point makes writing purposeful; yet for the most signal virtue of clear, plain speech we must revert to Orwell: “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” That, most simply, is the point of the point.