Weird Al and George Orwell Want You to Write More Clearly
October 31, 2019
I try to live my life in such a way that Weird Al Yankovic will not make fun of me.
It’s a battle. Not because I live in an Amish paradise, or am white and nerdy, but because like many who write and communicate in a business setting, I occasionally find myself using a trite buzzword.
Can you imagine hearing this in a presentation today?
We’ll set a brand trajectory
Using management’s philosophy
Advance our market share vis-à-vis
Our proven methodology
With strong commitment to quality
Effectively enhancing corporate synergy
I heard them in Mission Statement, Weird Al’s cautionary song about the slow erosion of linguistic and personal meaning sparked by over-reliance on corporate jargon. Gorgeous Crosby-Stills-and-Nash-like harmonies carry these highfalutin but flabby words over images drawn by the competent but not quite human hand of the VideoScribe animation app.
An NPR interviewer asked Weird Al, a hit-making musician for decades, how he knew about this language. He said that he heard plenty of it in marketing meetings with his record label.
We all have our verbal crutches, and some of them are quite trendy. Weird Al’s 2014 song doesn’t parody our new developments. I had a long discussion about “thought leadership” just this morning. “Robust” is a word I use a bit too often. Most people likely to read this post will have used the words “disrupter” or “enablement” at some point during 2019. But as we write words that we hope will shape the world, or at least the opinions and behavior of our readers, we must fight to stay original. The clarity of our language should reflect the clarity of our thought.
In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell linked a decline in clear written English to a decline in clear thought, especially thought about politics. He identified two qualities that marked this weak prose, “The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” When we use weak and tired metaphors, no actual images come to mind. We see nothing when people ask us to “think outside the box,” “play hardball” or do a “deep dive.” And we often don’t know what they mean.
Like many college students, I first read Politics and the English Language in my freshman comp class. I used the text for several years when I taught freshman comp. Orwell, writing immediately after the Second World War, was especially biting as he analyzed the ways that empty jargon propped up repressive regimes. I’m grateful that I have usually turned to this essay for writing advice alone.
Toward the end of the essay, Orwell offers these rules to help in the effort to “cut out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.” They serve writers as well today as in 1946.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
For more writing advice from Weird Al, watch Word Crimes. It’s especially recommended for grammar nerds!
October 31, 2019