Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Science and the English Language

Rachel Toor and Brayden King have encouraged us to read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". It's a classic piece of writing "on writing", and it is of course also a masterpiece of "the plain style" itself. (Hugh Kenner has written a very good critique of Orwell called "The Politics of the Plain Style", which I recommend as well.) But, like all lists of rules of good writing, it can be easily rejected (not least as hypocrisy, which Orwell is the first to admit—"Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.") The purpose of an essay like this is to get you thinking, not to tell what to think. So let me tell you what I think.

One interesting thing to notice is that, although this is not the first time it has been used to bolster a critique of academic writing, Orwell's essay, as the title suggests, is actually about political writing. "In our time," he says, "it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing." As I have noted before, it is quite common to hear this said of published research. In our time, Gail Hornstein seemed to say, it is broadly true that scientific writing is bad writing. Her solution was to write for a popular audience.

It is here that the illusion of the plain style has some bite. "Prose like a window pane" really works when the reader is supposed to believe what the writer says. Yesterday, Rob Austin drew my attention to this critique of Clay Shirky, which confirms what Orwell already knew, namely, not so much that you can follow all his rules and still write badly (Whimsley is not saying Shirkey writes badly), but that what you write can still be, well, bollocks.

I think too often, when we invoke Orwell's essay, we focus on his rules. We should remember that his last rule (which ought to be his first rule) is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous". And sometimes we forget to read the rest of the essay. Brayden, for example, says,

Toor and Orwell lay out some simple rules to follow. I can’t argue with them, although I think one of the most important rules of academic writing is left out: remember your audience.

But Orwell says (my emphasis):

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.

And then he brings out his "rules". That is, the basic rule is "think of your reader". The basic rule, actually, is first to think. And then think about how you want to express your thoughts to an audience.

Bad writing, we might say, comes from putting the writing first. That is, from thinking that we, first and foremost, have to write. First and foremost, I would remind us, we have to have something to say, something worth writing about. And for that to happen, there must be someone to say it to.

In his essay, Orwell is interested in "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought". Kierkegaard quips somewhere that people use language not to hide their thoughts, but to hide the fact that they don't have any thoughts. I think the sort of writing Orwell complains about really comes from there. And such writers will not be helped by rules that impose a plain style on them. It may be true that if you write plainly "when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself." But then again, the charm of Orwell's essay is that the examples of bad writing he cites are plainly bad. Their poverty should have been just as obvious, even to the writers themselves.

1 comment:

gregory said...

riff off the post title ...

cannot think of any science more crippled by its research being done in english than neuroscience ...

such clumsy, clunky, imprecise concepts in english for mind and its associated apparatus (western pov, brain makes consciousness, lol)

in sanskrit there are five words for aspects of mind .. awareness is distinct from consciousness .. the concepts are so much more subtle and accurate than english ..

how different research would be if it was done in sanskrit !!

and a whole lot better !!