Monday, December 31, 2007

Rhetorical questions

Why is political language so bad? I don’t mean politicians being rude about each other, but rather the rotten quality of their prose.

George Orwell’s marvellous essay Politics and the English Language discussed this in 1946, arguing that political language consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. He scorns the overuse of abstraction, the tactical deployment of meaningless words to evoke approval or disapproval as desired, the blending of dying metaphors with needlessly complex phrases that pad sentences out, and other rhetorical devices:

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

This is important not just to language obsessives, because “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. Throwing off bad verbal habits allows us to think more clearly, “and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”.

Orwell suggests a few guidelines for clear, honest writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(I am sure I regularly break each of these, and without avoiding barbarousness.)

Six decades on, the essay is still well worth reading, and has at least as much validity as it did then. Take these extracts from the party leaders’ new year messages.

David Cameron:

In place of Labour's hopeless surrender to violence on our streets, with overcrowded prisons and police tied up in red tape, we will offer the hope of civilised communities which are safe for everyone, based on radical police reform and more prison places in prisons which actually reduce re-offending.

Gordon Brown:

With important legislation making long-term changes in energy, climate change, health, pensions, planning, housing, education and transport, 2008 will be a year of measurable changes in public services. A year for stepping up major long-term reform to meet challenges ranging from globalisation and global warming to the great unfinished business of social reform in our country.

Nick Clegg:

2008 will be a momentous year for the Liberal Democrats. We have before us an unparalleled opportunity. We must reach beyond the stale two-party system to the millions of people who share our liberal values, and change Britain for the better. Let us show what that means in the local elections that face us this spring. Putting British families back in control of their everyday lives will be at the heart of everything we stand for.

You see the clichés, self-important but empty. Surrenders are always hopeless, reform is always radical, changes are always for the long term, there are always challenges that need meeting, opportunities are always unparalleled, and the two-party system (which is only a ‘two-party system’ because the other parties consistently can’t attract more support) is always stale.

Brown – in this case and generally – is probably the worst offender on jargon. His intellect is undeniable, but his speech patterns too often seem mechanical. Clegg seems to be most like a human being, probably owing to his inexperience, but the culture is already permeating him. He comes across a bit like a student hack or Question Time audience member trying to sound like a proper politico, because he thinks that’s how you have to play the game.

Cameron (and Tony Blair, whose model he follows) reminds us of more recent linguistic turns in politics. In contrast to the verbose and over-complicated language Orwell decries, we’ve seen since the 1990s a style that shortens sentences, very often to the point at which they lack verbs. The aim of this is to evoke feelings and connote possibilities rather than to make definite statements. Sentences are starved of concrete meaning rather than bloated with gibberish.

Alongside this has been an increase in what I’ll punningly call demotic possession: calculated use of the vernacular to make the speaker seem like an ‘ordinary bloke’ (it’s usually men).

Blair was a master of this: his ‘you know’s seemed natural, and the fact that he could get away with “I am a pretty straight sort of guy” in the face of a party funding scandal that would have crippled John Major demonstrates the power of this technique. The aim is to get the public to judge you more on your (apparent) character than on your actions. If they think you’re ‘one of us’, they’ll be more likely to excuse your failures. (Bill Clinton and George Bush both managed this well.)

Cameron borrows heavily from Blair in style as well as strategy, but can’t quite pull it off so well. His ‘actuallys’ and ‘incrediblys’ seem deliberate attempts to sound earnest, as if he’s working to conceal a comfortable nonchalance. He compares superbly with previous Tory leaders, but unfortunately for him, we’ve heard this act done much better before.

Politicians abuse language far too much, no doubt very often without realising that’s what they’re doing. They should do better. So, for that matter, should I. Happy new year.


Sam said...

Excellent post.

I agree: like his "camera smile" Brown's speeches exhibit the stiffness of someone in a sort of "political speech mode" - seemingly only sincere in its blatant insincerity.

Contrast to Cameron, so obviously self-styled second coming of Blair. He simply is not as good as his master, and seems to have the opposite of Brown: the insincerity of appearing over-sincere.

Orwells essay is worth reading for its general tips on Good English, but also as a welcomed reminder that politics is no more cynical now than it was in 1948.

Liam Murray said...

There's a well-thumbed copy lying on the desk I blog from at all times - not that I've learned all it's lessons...

Also check out Norman Fairclough's 'New Labour, New Language' - I'm pretty certain someone on Cameron's team devoured that a couple of years back...

Chris said...

I'm very disappointed in you young man. Thinking that George Orwell's rules are anything other than cant is not what I expect from a language maven. He's mostly right on the symptoms* but his cures are as half-baked as any homeopathists placebos. This the Orwell who in an essay telling us to avoid the passive has 20% of his sentences be just that when the average passive rate is at most 13%?** This the Orwell who in the sentence 'Bad writers ... are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones' uses three words from Latin via Old French, haunt, notion and grand?*** And so on. Orwell is a not unskilfull writer**** but like many such writers and readers he's confused superior intuition for actual competence. Besides, you can follow all his rules and still be a lying scumbag. No offence ;-)

*Although I happen to think that it's also a case of politicians using the right type language for one specific group of people even though their words are more widely reported. GB, I'm sure, realises he would be as pilloried from here to there if he tried anything demotic as TB was when he first dropped an aitch on the Des O'Connor show. In short, it's our fault as well. And sometimes it's not just making a speech that is necessary to get your words in the newspapers but also using the right language.
***Source - I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the everyday English words that could replace those. And also to buy the book.

Tom Freeman said...

I'm very disappointed in you young man.

A string of ex-girlfriends, ex-teachers, ex-employers and two parents unable to legally disown me will be welcoming a new member to the club.

You're right: Orwell breaks his own rules, and they're far from being foolproof rules too.

His passivity is to be regretted, and what his point about Latin and Greek words actually is is unclear (avoid wherever possible? avoid too many? avoid the more wantonly florid thereof?).

It's also very true that the media respond more to arresting phrases than to quality or novelty of ideas (if ideas there be). I'm more than happy to lob bowelfuls of condemnation at the media...

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