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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.

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Leo Lex
May 23rd, 2018
2:05 AM
I see one thoughtless comment that has sat here slinging mud for 2 years now. Why does Standpoint allow this ghetto filth to smear what is one of the best articulation of the state of language I’ve ever read? In fact, the third sentence vilifying the essay isn’t even a proper sentence at all. How pathetic is it to use ghetto sentence structure in the very insult on wrongfully flings at his target. While respecting legitimate criticism, even by a loose standard, I’m surprised and dismayed that Standpoint magazine does not protect its contributors from vulgar, and indeed illiterate mudslinging. The only thing I can think of more vulgar and cheap minded than this illiterate post by Terry Denman, is Standpoint's willingness to let it sit there festering for two years.

Terry Denman
May 10th, 2016
9:05 PM
Butterfield couldn't write a shopping list clearly. His style is pretentious and old-fashioned. His views on language are a masterpiece of ignorance and prejudice. Proving that a knowledge of Latin does nothing for your writing at all. Anyone who thinks that N M Gwynne has anything to teach the world about good writing is clearly bonkers. Just read him. Then read Oliver Kamm's Accidence Will Happen. Hope Kamm gets hold of Butterfield's nonsense.

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