EP&M Online Essay



Edward Zuk


            One of the essays that I return to every year is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  I am not quite certain why I find myself taking it from my bookshelf regularly while other essays, just as important or challenging, gather dust.  On its surface, “Politics and the English Language” is a plea against using jargon and unclear language, which is hardly a riveting subject.  However, several qualities raise it into a classic.  First, there is Orwell’s wicked sense of humour.  I always chuckle over the examples of awful prose that he cites (Professor Harold Laski’s passage beginning “I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become” is a gem).  I also find myself humbled by the list of Do’s and Don’t’s for writers that ends the essay: 

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to

     seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use a passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of
      an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

At this point, Orwell’s essay turns into a chastisement (at least for me), and I am always upset to realize that I am prone to most of these faults, (i) and (iv) especially.  But what is most impressive about “Politics and the English Language” is its seriousness.  “Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions,” one paragraph begins, and I have no doubt that Orwell did indeed regard bad writing as a “swindle” or “perversion.”  He makes the reason for his outrage clearer a few pages on:  “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  Don’t ignore bad writing, Orwell warns, since style can be a symptom of a moral fault or confusion of mind.

<>            In my latest reading of “Politics and the English Language,” I noticed two points that I had overlooked before.  First, Orwell singles out literary critics for special abuse.  Two of the five passages of bad writing that Orwell cites come from professors speaking about literary topics.  Besides the passage on Milton by Professor Harold Laski, there is this sentence by Professor Lancelot Hogben:

            Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious
            collocations of vocables  as the Basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.

Literary critics provided forty percent of the bad prose that Orwell encountered, if this sampling is any indication.  My second realization was that these passages feature better writing than most of the literary criticism that I have read.  Anyone who browses an academic journal or even some of the smaller literary magazines will find sentences like this one:  “What stakes are attached to autonomous embodied tellings of the self, and how is poetry the occasion for subjective, restful, aroused proprioception of the embodied present or, alternatively, a repeatedly restless and enervated dislocation of the self.”  Judged against this standard, Professor Hogben’s “prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables” comes off well – at least he is trying to make a point.

            We have lived with wretchedly-written literary criticism so long that we hardly notice how awful it has become.  Most readers now regard it as a standing joke.  When Philosophy and Literature ran its Bad Writing Contest from 1995 to 1998, only English professors found it outrageous that all of its winners were literary critics.  But with winners like the following, few would argue with the editors’ decision to select only critics for their prizes:

Previous exercises in influence study depended upon a topographical model of reallocatable poetic images, distributed more or less equally within ‘canonical’ poems, each part of which expressively totalized the entelechy of the entire tradition. But Bloom now understood this cognitive map of interchangeable organic wholes to be criticism’s repression of poetry’s will to overcome time’s anteriority.

This passage tied for third prize in 1995 (he first- and second-prize winners are worse).  But in spite of the publicity that the Bad Writing contest received, nothing changed, and reams of prose as awful as the above fill the scholarly journals.  But now that poets and newspaper critics regularly produce writing that is on the same level, we should examine the reasons for the decline.

            If Orwell is correct, the bad writing of literary criticism is the result of a confusion of thought.  The English language, Orwell writes, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish.”  This process is a self-reinforcing one:  “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”  After reading a critical essay filled with phrases like “previous exercises in influence study,” I have the impression that I have learned nothing at all about its subject.  Instead, I feel that the author has aped the right opinions, or parroted the right jargon, or aligned himself with the right party, or manufactured outrage over the right subjects, all done in a style similar to the examples I have cited.  These essays, which make up the greater part of the criticism being written, all lack one quality:  original thinking.  They resemble high school assignments in that their authors choose an acceptable opinion and then string together paragraphs that are similar to other dozens of other essays they have read.  The result is writing similar to those passages I quoted above, which in turn will inspire another round of awful writing, and so on ad infinitum.

            Of course, not all critics write this badly.  If we have no critic writing at the level of a Dr. Johnson or Coleridge, we do have a number of critics who write engagingly about important topics.  But the great mass of criticism contains prose that is unreadable by anyone who does not have a professional stake in sifting through it.  In the spirit of Orwell, I have selected four examples to show some of the more common failings that plague criticism today.  In each case, the author has fallen into the trap of not paying attention to what he is saying.  Instead, he has let his mind drift along in ways that he has heard before.  My hope is that we can jeer these forms of bad writing into extinction.  If these writers realize how silly they sounded, they can scrap the offending passages or rewrite them in decent English, saving themselves and their readers embarrassment. 

            Following Orwell, I have numbered the passages for ease of reference.

            (1) My first example comes from academia.  This style, a kind of house style of the universities, will be familiar to anyone who has skimmed a scholarly journal in the past twenty years:

We will never be done, says Derrida, with the reading of Hegel. When we think we have gotten beyond Hegel in trumpeting our escape from the strictures of reason, teleology, metanarratives, idealism, we are most Hegelian. Yet we frequently find, even in the most theoretically naïve works, claims to have "deconstructed" prevalent interpretations or notions of reason, identity, consciousness, nature and the natural, morality, history, and so forth. Such trends may lead us to believe that we are done with Hegel, but, as Barnett says and this volume demonstrates, not only does Hegel define "the modernity that our postmodern era seeks to escape" (1), but there is a Hegel that we have yet to examine. Nowhere is this more true than in the present calls to deal with the strategies of representation in literature and the concomitant theses that culture is a signifying system and knowledge is regulated by the material interests of institutional powers. We would be hard pressed to find a questioning of the grounds of representation and technicity, concepts that lie at the heart of culture and institution. For this, we would do well to follow the example of these writers and turn to Derrida's reading of what remains of Hegel in our thought today.

Most of the faults of the academic style are on display in this paragraph.  There are the pretentious assertions (“we would do well to follow”), the sneers (“theoretically naïve works”), the use of scare quotes (“’deconstructed’”), the technical-sounding words and phrases (“technicity”), and even cheap slang so that the author doesn’t sound too academic (“when we think we have gotten beyond”).  Worst of all is the amount of jargon.  Academic prose often sounds as if it has entered a contest to see how many catch-phrases like “a signifying system” or “the grounds of representation and technicity” can be stuffed into a single paragraph.  The paragraph above is actually a mild example of the academic style, and after selecting it, I came across a sentence that began “in raising the spectre of the antireal, particularly as a contestional mode where realism is concerned, I am not suggesting that probabilistic fiction maintains a referentiality independent of either contrivance or of the many complications that language. . .”  This sentence is typical of the prose that many scholars churn out. 

            The first thing to notice about this style is that it is very ugly.  It has all of the attraction of a mud puddle.  The great danger of the academic style is that it is possible to write it only if you have suspended – or even lost – the ability to judge prose according to its brevity, accuracy, and beauty.  This in itself would be enough to cause me to worry about the future of criticism.  When academics who write in this way turn their attention to the style of Austen or Conrad, what insights could they possibly reach? 

            Another objection against it is that it is too common to convey a significant idea.  Writing in this style is not hard to produce – after all, everyone studying English in the humanities can churn it out by the ream.  The academic style encourages the critic to string together ready-made phrases, making clear and original thinking impossible.  You cannot think about literature (or anything else) in an original manner if phrases like “a signifying system regulated by the material interests of institutional power” come too quickly and often to your mind.  Catch-phrases – even academic ones – reveal that the writer is parroting the thoughts of someone else, or everyone else.  While he may have begun with an insight or thought that is new, by the time the fourth reference to “the material grounds of technicity” pops out, any originality has long been buried.  Instead, there are only the vague, fashionable ideas that survive only in seminar rooms, if they can be said to be alive at all.

            “Politics and the English Language” tried to purge this type of jargon from the English language.  Orwell objected to jargon on the grounds that it breeds political acceptance and comformity.  If our language avoids speaking of anything directly, he reasoned, then any political atrocity can be talked around eventually, and our politics will be reduced to a vague, half-understood consensus: 

A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself . . . and this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensible, is at any rate favourable to political conformity. 

I see no reason why the words “literary conformity” cannot be substituted for “political conformity” here.  If a critic cannot express himself clearly and forcefully, he will end up standing for nothing at all.  Of course, a clear writer may also parrot the opinions of those around him.  The difference is that there is a possibility that the clear writer may produce something original, but for the writer of ready-made jargon no original thought is possible.

            (2) My second example comes from the blurb of a collection of Chekhov’s short stories:

‘Chekhovian.’  It’s clear that this adjective had to be invented for the new voice Chekhov’s genius breathed into the world – elusive, inconclusive, flickering; nuanced through an underlying disquiet, though never morbid or disgruntled; unerringly intuitive, catching out of the air vibrations, glittering motes, faint turnings of the heart, tendrils thinner than hairs, drift.  But Chekhov’s art is more than merely Chekhovian.  It is dedicated to explicit and definitive portraiture and the muscular trajectory of whole lives.  Each story, however allusive or broken off, is nevertheless exhaustive – like the curve of a shard that implies not simply the form of the pitcher entire, but also the thirsts of its shattered civilization.

This quotation begins well:  up to the phrase “catching out of the air vibrations,” I find it to be an accurate, though clichéd, description of Chekhov’s style.  But once the passage devolves into a stream of images, it slips into nonsense.  I am surprised to learn that the “trajectory of whole lives” can be “muscular,” or that “faint turnings of the heart” can be caught “out of the air,” or that anyone picking up a shard of poetry would imagine “the thirsts of [a] shattered civilization,” whatever that may mean.  The resulting confusion is nearly as great as that in the examples of academic prose cited above.  By the end of the quotation, the critic has left off even trying to speak of Chekhov and instead is lost in a poetic rambling that would have embarrassed Walter Pater.

            I have begun to see more and more of this type of writing in critical reviews and on dust jackets.  Image is piled on image, high-sounding phrases are strung together with no thought as to what is actually being said, and any embarrassment over not making any sense is quickly left behind.  No doubt the authors of passages like these believe that they are being poetic.  But the truth is that using imagery to convey one’s thoughts takes more restraint and self-criticism than plain prose if one wishes to prevent oneself from slipping into nonsense.  When imagery is written thoughtlessly, the result is pseudo-poetry at best and self-parody at worst.  “So assured and musical is the hand that shaped them that these poems tend to memorize themselves, as though they had always formed part of our experience,” opines another critic who mixes metaphors from music and sculpture in the first part of the sentence and then winds up with the idea of poems memorizing themselves, as if poems had nothing better to do than to spend time learning their own lines by heart. 

            I do not know when critics decided that a cloud of images can be poetic in and of itself, but this opinion has obviously become widespread.  The silliness of this type of writing is enough to condemn it.  A sentence like “the lines are lit, sometimes with the crepuscular radiance of Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ sometimes with the fiery ‘darkness visible’ of Milton’s Pandemonium” is harmless enough by itself.  But there is real danger hidden in sloppy imagery:  it separates poetic imagery from sense.  By tossing out images carelessly, critics reinforce the notion that poetic language can act without any appeal to the intellect, that it operates independently from common sense.  Poetry, they imply, is a stupid activity, one that cannot be anything but a minor art.  This attitude indicates a deep loss of faith in the power of poetry to make meaningful statements about politics, ethics, or human emotion.  Of course, this message is probably the opposite of their intention.  But can we take Mark Strand’s lines seriously if they are lit “with the fiery ‘darkness visible’ of Milton’s Panedemonium”?  Or does such a comment suggest that the critic does not hold poetry in high regard after all?


            The academic and impressionistic styles of critical language use ready-made or jumbled images to pad their sentences.  There are other ways to prevent criticism from having meaning.  Some critical prose seems, on its surface, to be clearly written, but on closer inspection it dissolves into blather.  Clear writing can, at times, be nearly as bad as jargon.  Orwell acknowledges this type of writing near the end of his essay:  “one could keep all of [the rules for writing clear prose] and still write bad English.”  In these cases, the writer’s rhetorical stance prevents anything from being said.  The next two passages show how widespread this false clarity has become.

            (3) My third example, or rather examples, reveal how clear writing can fail to carry any meaning whatsoever:
(i) Hamlet’s frustration is that he is allowed only Elsinore and revenge tragedy.
(ii) We cannot know what Don Quixote and Hamlet believe, since they do not share our limitations.  Don Quixote knows who he is, even as the Hamlet of act V comes to know what can be known.
(iii) Cervantes performs the miracle, nobly Dante-like, of presiding over his creation like a Providence, but also subjecting himself to the subtle changes brought about both in the Knight and in Sancho Panza by their wonderful conversations, in which a shared love manifests itself by equality and grumpy disputes.  They are brothers, rather than father and son.  To describe the precise way that Cervantes regards them, whether with ironic love or loving irony, is an impossible critical task.
(iv) We need to hold in mind as we read Don Quixote that we cannot condescend to the Knight and Sancho, since together they know more than we do . . .
These passages appear in a single introduction to Don Quixote.  I chose them because they do not make any sense, either in their entirety or in part.  Sentence (i) pretends that Hamlet the character is frustrated by being in his own play.  Passage (ii) informs us that Hamlet “comes to know what can be known,” whatever that may mean.  Passage (iii) is filled with confusion, starting with Cervantes “subjecting” himself to the changes in his characters before arguing that it is impossible to tell whether he regards them with “ironic love or loving irony,” which in a way is true enough.  Passage (iv) again speaks of the literary characters as real people and pretends that “they know more than we do,” as if that were possible of two figures in a novel.  In context, these comments are lost among passages that do make sense, but viewed on their own, they are as vacuous as jumbles like “Bloom now understood this cognitive map of interchangeable organic wholes to be criticism’s repression of poetry’s will to overcome time’s anteriority.”  The only difference between them is that one is dragged down by its jargon while the others use plain English.

            I often notice this kind of writing in essay by academic writers who try to reach a general audience as if the vacuousness of academic jargon has infected these pieces as well.  Orwell speaks of this type of writing under the heading of “meaningless words”:

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.  Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

<>We tend to think of meaningless words as those adapted from French theorists or neo-Marxism:  “the grounds of representation” or “structures of material well-being,” for example.  However, passage (ii) misuses the word “know” so as to render it without content, and passage (iii) uses “irony” and “love” in a way that lacks any meaning.  The slide of common words into meaningless collections of letters is troubling.  No one outside the university much cares whether or not a term like “technicity” is being used correctly or not since the word is not intended to have a definite meaning.  When words like “know” or “being” become misused, the inattention of the writer becomes glaring and shows how far our command of the English language has declined.

(4)  I have chosen my final example to show how an extreme rhetorical stance coarsens both the language and the thought:

Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.

<>I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody's oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Moody up in order to knock him down. One of those starting points was this: "Rick Moody is a lot of things, but he is not actually dumb." This was an attempt at charity, and though I still think that it's true enough, I don't think that it matters; at any rate, his intelligence does not make up for the badness of his books. Another attempt: "In his breakthrough novel The Ice Storm, Rick Moody evinces a troubling fascination with adolescent sexual organs that is partially explained in his latest book, The Black Veil, a so-called 'memoir with digressions.'" Again, the observation strikes me as correct. The problem here was in assuming that what most readers think of as the subject of a story has any role in a Moody project beyond giving his tangled prose something to wrap itself around, the way a vine will wrap itself around the nearest thing to hand, be it trellis, tree, or trash.
Compared to my examples (1) and (2), this passage comes across as a model of clarity.  But after reading this passage several times, I find that it says nothing about The Black Veil except that it is a “memoir with digressions.”  The rest of the article is filled with character assassination and hyperbole.  This type of exaggeration is a constant temptation to the reviewer considering books he does not like, and I have noticed a number of reviewers succumbing to it, including one in the Hudson Review which claimed that its subject:

. . . is the dullest book of poems that I have ever read.  I hesitate to call it the dullest book of poems ever written only because I lack comprehensive knowledge and am filled with suspicion toward eighteenth-century France.  But no: after a second reading, I am prepared to be bold.  There are no poems duller than these poems.  There are very few IRS documents duller than these poems.  These poems make Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre look positively salacious.

  <>I have succumbed to this temptation myself when reviewing a book of young Canadian poets – a review which never made it to print, I am happy to say. 

            The problem with hyperbole is that it prevents any subtlety.  Its claims are almost certainly wrong (as someone who once tried to read a Robert Southey epic, I am skeptical that any book could be duller, and no one who has taught a creative writing course would call Rick Moody the worst writer of his generation).  Moreover, it represents a coarsening of sensibility.  In a way, this type of writing is the cousin of advertising and jacket blurbs which pretend that a book is “brilliant” or “a masterpiece” or “a great work of our time” when it clearly is not.  When a reviewer reads comments like “one of the most touching, exuberant, cleverly-crafted and utterly entrancing plays” about a forgotten drama, he will be tempted to write something like “I have seen the dullest play in existence” in response.  Neither response cares much about the words that it uses.  The sentence “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” and “one of his most touching, exuberant, etc. plays” are both devoid of specific detail.  Instead, both evaluations reduce criticism to the level of advertising slogans, helping to create an environment in which outrageous statements shout down the accurate ones.

          By way of contrast, I would cite the opening of another essay that is more scathing than those I quoted above:

A more friendly critic, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, observes of this poet [Christopher Marlowe] that “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare.”  In this sentence there are two misleading assumptions and two misleading conclusions.  Kyd has as good a title to the first honour as Marlowe; Surrey has a better title to the second; and Shakespeare was not taught or guided by one of his predecessors or contemporaries alone.

<>These sentences occur at the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Some Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe.”  Compared to the paragraphs above, they are specific in their criticisms and provide some useful clarifications about Renaissance poetry.  The criticism of Swinburne, though largely implied, has substance, and I have no quarrel with any of the factual corrections or the implication that Swinburne was not a careful critic.  Both the paragraphs above, however, have little to say about their subject.  I see nothing wrong with poor reviews or attacks on literature that a writer believes to be substandard; this is one of the functions of criticism, to weed out the bad from the good.  When there is nothing but posing and insults being thrown at a hapless victim, however, the level of criticism can’t help but decline.


            Originally, I had planned to end this essay with a list of recommendations similar to Orwell’s.  I soon realized that I had little to add to his rules for clear writing.  Any advice I had could be summed up in the phrase “be aware of your style.”  All of the faults I have discussed in this essay – the reliance on academic jargon, the stringing together of random images, the misuse of common words as if they were jargon, the empty attacks – are the result of a failure to develop a distinctive style.  Instead, they substitute something ready-made, whether it is the phrases of thousands of other scholars, bad poetry, or the bland slogans of advertising. 

            Instead of providing a list of rules, then, I would like to try to answer the question, Why does this matter?  There are several possible responses.  There is, of course, the embarrassment that poets should feel in being related to such writing – is this what our poetry inspires?  Is this the result of devoting a life to literature, that people will think of it like that?  On a deeper level, it matters because criticism matters.  Literature – and poetry in particular – can and should be aided by a vigorous criticism.  No one today seriously believes that its function is to propagate “the best that is known and thought” or to see “the thing as it really is,” as Matthew Arnold held.  However, criticism can aspire to more practical aims.  A literary essay can popularize an overlooked work or puncture the reputation of an overrated one.  It can chastize a writer for squandering his potential.  It can set standards, notice and promote (or demote) current trends, deepen the meaning or significance of a classic for its readers, establish the text of a work, analyze techniques to make them available to others, revive older works as models for the present, and so on.  Poorly-written criticism achieves none of these aims, and when poets and novelists can no longer depend on themselves or others to perform these tasks, their work will inevitably suffer. 

                                                               Edward Zuk
                                                               All Rights Reserved