Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog


George Orwell on Language

Posted many other places but I've always enjoyed this:

I am going to to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.  [...] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence following the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations--race, battle, bread--dissolve into the vague phrase "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing--no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena"--would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do no want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence that to the one from Ecclesiastes.

From George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946 -- emphasis is mine.

Perhaps my brain is turning to mush a bit young, but I'm often quite baffled by modern writers who seem to intentionally be making language become liquid and amorphous. Even more troubling, I find that people often will point to something like the parody sentence above and be convinced that because of its technical use of language, it's probably superior, and even more concrete. Loss of metaphor, use of highly specialized language, and tacking of rote phrases and clauses together results in a meaningless jumble of confusion.

See also: George Orwell on Writing


Happy New Year!

It's 2008 and about time I say! I have high hopes for this year. Having resolved to not make resolutions I don't intend to carry through with (keep up with the double negatives there) I simply intend to continue to improve in every way possible this year. If I gained 10 lbs this last year, I bet I can double it this year! Wish me luck!

While it's fresh in my mind, I would like to mention that the word gift as a verb meaning to give as a gift is irritating. I'm a bit of a stickler for proper English, while realizing that of course languages do evolve. I also don't mind the use of new words for fun or for poetic/literary purposes. Obviously if the word gift was never used as a verb it could be a rather powerful bit of poetry that chose to use it as such. But what bothers me is the common use (and it really is getting common just in the last few months it seems) of gift as a verb. What irks me is that perfectly good words already exist that mean the same thing. Most often the verb give works well. When it doesn't, the words endow or bestow seem appropriate (maybe they feel a little too old-fashioned). I find it commonly used in church circles, especially in reference to what I think should be called making a donation, tithing, or giving.

Regifting is commonly used and makes good sense as a new word in my opinion. It has a highly specific meaning and purpose and doesn't replace an existing verb. Perhaps the recent increase in usage of gift as a verb is as a back-formation of regift.

I think also that one of the reasons I reject this verb so much is that it's very pretentious. It's redundant to say that I'm "gifting my son a present for Christmas". Of course it's a gift if it's for Christmas! Well, what if I am "gifting a tool to my neighbor". If you use the common verb "giving a tool to my neighbor" it means something slightly different. I may simply be handing it to him and expecting him to return it later. So you could argue that the use of gifting in this second example is in fact providing clarification to the verb give by showing clearly that it is a gift. But what's the real difference? I see it as a weasely way of drawing attention to your act of generosity. It's similar to give but just different enough that people notice it. For example, saying that "Mr. X gave $10,000 to the church" is not really different than "Mr. X gifted $10,000 to the church" except it really does sound like he was somehow more generous in the second phrase. Of course our fictional Mr. X isn't going to ask for the money back either way but with the second form it's rubbing it in.

When I was a kid, I remember using the phrase "for keeps" and tacking it to the end of statements such as "I'll give you my firetruck" (I was more of a police car guy). I would feel absurd saying, "I'll gift you my firetruck" and I have the hardest time imagining this ever becoming regular, non-pretentious English speech. As I'm writing this, I'm feeling more and more that this is really about culture, not grammar. If I randomly present someone with something, it's proper in Western culture to say something like "Here, you can have this angled, cordless DeWalt nail gun. Go ahead and keep it when you're done with it." It's rather immature to say "I'm giving you a gift -- this angled, cordless DeWalt nail gun". You don't call gifts "gifts" just like you don't call your own generosity "generosity". If it's Christmas or a birthday where a gift is expected, then it's redundant to gift rather than just give. It creates far too much ambiguity between the phrases "gifting Ted a present for his birthday" and "giving Ted a present for his birthday". I don't see a clear difference except now the presence or use of the first phrase creates odd connotations in the second. Maybe Ted has to let me borrow his present now.

So, in summary, it's bad. I encourage one and all to pretend to be confused whenever you hear this word used as a verb. "Do you mean give?" is a good response.

And if I do get a DeWalt nail gun I'm not gifting it to anyone!