In the past 75 years, there have been two authors who have profoundly demonstrated the effects when language is mangled and distorted and, conversely, how to write clearly and powerfully.
Now both of them are dead. George Orwell is the obvious first but Harry (AKA Sir Harold) Evans has also been important.
Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, was a compelling dissection of how the corruption of language is a key part of the corruption of political processes. It is as relevant in the 21st century when democracy is under threat again as it was in the 20th age of dictators.
Orwell’s advice on clear writing was simple: never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and, break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Writing in the 21st century the FT journalist, Lucy Kellaway, turned Orwell on his head to describe much business and managerialist speak as ‘fluent in flannel: a guide to mastering the method’ which produces claptrap.
Her guide’s rules to being fluent in flannel are: never use a short word when a long will do; everyday euphemisms are the way forward; disregard the grammar you learned at school; there is no such thing as too much emotion; if you produce something simple, rebrand it so no-one will know what it is; do not limit yourself to words that are in the dictionary; there is no such thing as too much metaphor and cliché in one sentence; and, ignore rule number one.
If the last is confusing just think of all those people who use short well-known words but with a totally different meaning.
Harry Evans was a brilliant Sunday Times and Times editor before falling out with Rupert Murdoch after which he went to New York and achieved a very successful publishing career. He died in September aged 92.
He was one of the great editors in both senses of the word and published the definitive books on newspaper style and editing and writing including Editing and Design: A Five-Volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout (1972); Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers (1972); Newsman’s English (1972); Newspaper Design (1973); Editing and Design (1974); Handling Newspaper Text (1974); and, News Headlines (1974).
The ‘Newsman’ titles are uncomfortable for modern readers but the reality 50 years ago was that there were few to no females on sub-editing desks. Some of it is no longer relevant to a digital media era but all of it is relevant to anyone wanting to write clear, effective prose.
A simple Evans’ example epitomises his approach. Someone wants to open a fish shop and is thinking about the sign he wants to put on the shop. His first idea is ‘fresh fish sold here’. Evans says the response should be as follows: drop the ‘fresh’ because you would hardly be selling fish that wasn’t fresh; drop the ‘here’ because there’s fish in the window; and, drop the sold because it’s obviously a shop.
His last book Do I make Myself Clear? was published in 2017. It ranges widely and the first line is appropriate: “The year 2016 was the seventh anniversary of George Orwell’s classic polemic Politics and the English Language indicting bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language.”
Evans’ book ranges over basics: how to fix your ugly over-burdened sentences; how to avoid zombie words and pleonasms; rigorous focus on meaning; how to tell both long and short stories; ugly contortions to evade responsibility such as ‘steps were taken’ and other passive formulations and deflective devices; why much writing about money is so bad and so misleading; and, to illustrate it all he includes a number of case studies where he cites particular texts and then demonstrates how they could be edited to make them clearer and more effective.
Evans might have approved of the punctuation in the last sentence, but not of its length or structure.
In perhaps the most valuable chapter – Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear – he effectively follows Orwell’s advice, but also provides examples of writing sins and then shows how the sins can be remedied.
The first shortcut – Get Moving – focuses on active and passive voice constructions but outlines exceptions to the subject, verb, object approach to writing. They are: when the doer of an action is unknown; when the receiver of the action merits more prominence than the doer (a rhinoceros ran over Donald Trump today); when the doer of the action is known but tact or cowardice imposes reticence (legal inhibitions or the pussy-footing passive are examples of this); when the length of the subject delays the verb’s entrance; and, when the active voice creates ambiguity.
Other shortcuts focus on rationing adjectives and adverbs; cutting fat and checking figures; organising for clarity; being positive; avoiding being boring; putting people first; avoiding circumlocutory propositions; and ‘monologophobia’.
The last was coined by Theodore Bernstein a New York Times assistant managing editor. He defined a monologophobe as “a guy who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines.”
The book concludes with a quote from Sir William Haley, a former Times editor, who said: “There are things which are bad and false and ugly and no amount of specious casuistry will make them good true or beautiful.”
To that, Evans added: “the fog that envelops English is not just a question of good taste, style, and aesthetics. It is a moral issue.”
……which of course brings us right back to that election again.
Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/