Thursday, December 07, 2006

Orwell and the Plain English Campaign

The debate on the Guardian website and on my post below, generated by Germaine Greer's award of a Golden Bull by the Plain English Campaign, has sent me back to Orwell's 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.

No doubt the PEC would pull me up on that first sentence for its length, long sentences being one of their bugbears. And do you know, I have a hunch they would be right. Maybe the facts packed into it would be clearer and more quickly assimilated if I separated them. But the fact is, I can't be bothered to go back and do this because of the time and thought it would take without making it clumsy, and I've got a damned play to write. This is one of Orwell's points: that writing more simply yet with a satisfying rhythm takes time and thought. It's easier and lazier to pick up on euphonious ready-made constructions (which tend to be abstract and convoluted), and when we do this we tend to write with less thought. Orwell expresses an opposite idea to the one that to simplify language is to dumb down: by providing a translation of a Bible passage into modern-day speak he demonstrates that the simpler, more concrete language of the original is far more vivid and thus more meaningful.

There are some odd apparent inconsistencies about the PEC. It's very off-putting to me that that arch mangler of the English language, Tony Blair, is one of their supporters - the guy who has so dramatically mouthed (as if it's his own coinage!) one of the very cliches Orwell condemned all that time ago: stand shoulder to shoulder. But then (to unpick another cliche) you don't necessarily blame the bandwagon for those who jump on it, do you, and it's the vice of our age (so well demonstrated in Animal Farm) to lump together everything a person says as either good or bad, simply because of who they are. And just because the application of a set of principles is not always successful does not of course mean those principles are wrong. Anyway, some of the PEC's examples of clarification don't seem so bad to me:
Before: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the on-going learning process.
After: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
I have to say, the first of these is the kind of thing I have satirised many a time in a radio play.

However, the thing which discredits the PEC for me is what seems to be a huge category error. Not content with the rightful target of officialese, at the end of their section on 'Long Sentences' they provide a list of creative works with exceptionally long sentences, including Ulysses (for Molly Bloom's long stream-of-consciousness monologue). It's not altogether clear that they are condemning them and that they have no notion that these long sentences are artfully constructed for specific and dynamic effect, but it looks like it (and anyway, I thought they were all about clarity?)

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell's six rules for writing English are useful for creative writers, and I have always tried to abide by them myself whatever I'm writing (not always successfully, of course, as that redundant 'myself' proves!). It's perhaps worth repeating them here:
i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii) Never use a long word when a short word will do. (This does not preclude the notion that sometimes a short word will not do.)
iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent. (Once again, this does not preclude the notion that there may not be an equivalent.)
vi) Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.
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