Some trouble with the English language

By Frank Stabile
Senior biology major

Throughout his life, British author Eric Blair wrote a substantial body of critical literature under the pseudonym George Orwell. Although the dystopian stories, “Animal Farm” and “1984” brought his name to posthumous prominence, Orwell’s other novels and essays are of comparable significance.

In 1946, Orwell published “Politics and the English Language,” an essay criticizing the English of his period for its carelessness and vapidity. Unfortunately, this problem has not abated in the almost 70 years since Orwell’s death, despite his efforts to highlight the issue. In this article, I argue that the English language has continued on this trend toward sloppiness and offer several examples and possible solutions.

First, it is important to be clear about what is meant by sloppy English. Rather than concise and plain language, English is littered with obtuse words and redundant phrases that are designed to embellish simple ideas. As Orwell warned, this pattern impairs the language, leading to vague prose and shoddy speech.

A mindless language then promotes careless thought, creating a cycle of decline. This subtle but pervasive trend is what I summarize with the word sloppy. I do not mean basic problems, such as confusing their, there and they’re, or using an inappropriate synonym suggested by Microsoft Word. These mistakes, though irritating, are not as serious and typically reflect minor misunderstandings. Nor do I mean the introduction of new terms, like the long list of words that has appeared thanks to the Internet. Such changes are interesting and contribute to the modernization of English. Sloppiness, on the other hand, makes the language less clear and the ideas more muddled.

Three examples of sloppy language remain prevalent in modern English. The first is the verbal false limb, a problem described by Orwell in his 1946 essay. A verbal false limb is an unnecessarily long verb construction that replaces a simple and direct verb. Even though Orwell’s essay is more than 60 years old, many of the phrases he listed are still common, such as “give rise to,” “make contact with” and “have the effect of.” These false limbs use extra words to describe straightforward verbs like generate, connect and impact.

More recently, comedian George Carlin criticized “soft language,” or the substitution of clear-cut descriptions with multisyllabic, fluffy phrases that suck the life from the language. In his 1990 special “Doin’ It Again,” Carlin analyzes a long list of euphemisms that plague the English language. Some examples that persist to the present are the use of “pass away” instead of “die” and “senior citizens” instead of “old people.” However, the case that most irritated Carlin was “shellshock,” a word originally used to describe the trauma soldiers experienced in World War I. Over time, the name switched to “battle fatigue,” then “operational exhaustion,” and finally “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Although the diagnosis of this condition has obviously changed since the early 1900s, Carlin’s point is that the original, simple word “shellshock” has been replaced with a multisyllabic, stale and complicated alternative.

Finally, I regularly notice a linguistic problem that is not specific to the present, but is far too common in modern English — tautology, the unnecessary repetition of an idea using different words. Many instances of tautology are obvious, such as the ability to be able to, but most are easy to miss. For example, I have heard several ambassadors refer to Roscoe West as the building that “used to be the old library.” In this case, the language is repetitive and also reverses the meaning of the sentence. To be fair, these may be slips of the tongue, but tautologies occur even in formal settings. I have seen commercials for two separate technical institutions seeking “eligible candidates who qualify.” Since eligibility and qualification are hardly mutually exclusive, phrases like this are repetitive and confusing. The blend of verbal false limbs, euphemisms and tautologies leaves English speakers with a fatty and sterile language detached from the ideas it is meant to convey.

Thankfully, the first step in reversing these trends in the English language is drawing attention to them. After one thinks about tautology, for example, it becomes difficult to avoid noticing repetitive phrases. Luckily, thinkers like Orwell and Carlin make understanding and detecting these linguistic pitfalls that much easier. The next step is to actively correct these problems both in one’s own speech and writing and, finally, in the speech and writing of others. In doing so, we can move toward a more precise and effective English language of the sort Orwell imagined.