If It Came In A Bottle

Last week, Micah pointed me to the cover story in The Prospect, which I (in turn) called to the attention of my Writing Workshop students. At one point the author, Richard Jenkyns, quotes the canonical essay on bad English, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” with devastating force:

Orwell found certain faults common to all of these passages – ugliness, staleness of imagery and lack of precision: “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. 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 I reflected on this point — so vividly (or, more to the point, so dully) reflected in daily discourse — I remembered the wounded disclaimers I’ve so often encountered from people who wrote or said clumsy things. Somewhere, somehow, many people have gotten the idea that it should be easy to communicate exactly what they want to communicate. That belief has attained the status of an axiom for these writers, so that the repeated evidence that communicating accurately is not that easy tends not to disconfirm the axiom, but rather to demonstrate that everyone else bears the fault.

So I must reckon not primarily with the problem of teaching such writers as these to communicate well, but more fundamentally with the challenge of persuading them that communicating precisely may require more effort than they want to think. If you express yourself so vaguely that I can only guess at what you mean; or if you express yourself so tediously that it’s hard to pay attention; or if you give me no clues from which to infer the point of your discourse; or if you say something foolish, or wrong, or self-contradictory, or injurious, it’s not your reader’s problem — but yours. And it’s up to you to do something about it.

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6 Responses to If It Came In A Bottle

  1. Shelley says:

    …and a thousand, thousand webloggers cried out in dismay and fell silent in doubt and confusion. Later, they heard muttering, as they walked away heads down, glimmers of wet at the corners of their eyes, “D’you think he meant me?”

    Except for the Man in the Corner, caught between a belief that it was always about him, conflicting with knowing that it couldn’t possibly be about him.

  2. dave rogers says:

    I know. Honest, Padre, I’ll try to do better!

    What’s my penance?

    ;^)

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  4. Tim says:

    My first reaction was “Oh, if only communication WAS easy! Just think how much more effective and efficient life would be.

    Then I realised that if it was easy AKMA and I and all others in Biblical Studies would be out of a job :(

    So, maybe the Almighty had the right idea at Babel after all ;)

  5. kate says:

    “Except for the Man in the Corner, caught between a belief that it was always about him, conflicting with knowing that it couldn’t possibly be about him.”

    Or, rather: Except for the Man in the Corner, caught between a belief that it was always about him, and a certainty that it couldn’t possibly be about him.

    Parallel structure, yes, Shelley? And how about subjunctive mood, Tim?

    “Oh, if only communication WERE easy!”

    Sorry. A hundred years (or so) of editing grad-level papers by folk who OUGHT to know better … tends to leave one a bit snarky!

  6. Tutor says:

    Orwell made willful obscurity a moral fault, and you have to love him for it. Heidegger, the Bible, Poetry, all suspect. Lesser wits still trifle with genteel candor. Shallow streams often apppear the clearest. But, on the other hand, as Swift said, “many a hole seems wondrous deep only because it is wondrous dark.”

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