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.