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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Archives

Simply Put

The Prose & Cons of Modern Writing

by Cameron Wybrow

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 23

I've written about old books as a sort of medicine, which, if taken in proper doses, could cure some of our modern diseases. And to be sure, I do believe that the calmer and wiser minds of the past can help us to steer our society in a better direction. But sometimes, I admit, I have little hope that the old books will have any effect on the modern world. Sometimes I read them purely for moral support.

Consider the communication problem peculiar to modern life: the use—by academics, politicians, administrators, educators, and writers of all kinds—of bloated prose, loaded with jargon, abundant in long, scientific-sounding, Latin-based words, seemingly very informed, but often difficult or impossible to understand. George Orwell, in a great old essay, "Politics and the English Language," once invented this example:

Objective consideration 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.

Work on that for a minute or two. Is it easy to see what it means? Now compare it with the original from which Orwell adapted it:

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 favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

The biblical version, using shorter words and concrete examples, is easier to grasp than the one in the modern style—the style against which Orwell's essay is a scathing attack. But has Orwell's essay altered anything? "Politics and the English Language" was published in 1946, and the use of jargon-filled, pretentious prose has grown steadily since then.

It seems to me that this sort of writing has become a juggernaut that cannot be arrested; those who employ it, and those who pay for it, and reward it with doctorates and research grants, are beyond the reach of sane advice. But I take comfort in the knowledge that a truly great writer like Orwell agrees with me. And he is not the only one.

In another great old book, Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes writes about an equivalent problem in his own day. Of the Scholastic writer Suarez, he says (ch. 8):

What is the meaning of these words: The first cause does not necessarily inflow any thing into the second, by force of the Essentiall subordination of the second causes, by which it may help it to worke? . . . When men write whole volumes of such stuffe, are they not Mad, or intend to make others so?

Hobbes lays the blame for the production of such language upon the universities of his days, in which philosophical discussion was dominated by the jargon of the Schoolmen. On this he writes (ch. 1):

I say not this, as disapproving the use of Universities: but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a Commonwealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way, what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant Speech is one.

In a daydream, I imagine a pompous educator or literary critic delivering an incomprehensible lecture to some audience, and I imagine old Hobbes standing up and remarking upon "the frequency of insignificant Speech." The audience, which has been silently praying for a deliverer, breaks out in a murmur of suppressed laughter. Orwell is in the audience, and he smiles.

But then I wake up, and I'm back in the world of horrid academese. Yet the daydream has given me strength to carry on. Hobbes and Orwell are dead, and they have been largely ignored, but I know they are right: academese is the enemy of intelligibility and hence of truth itself. Old books can't always change what happens, but they can give us moments of moral and intellectual clarity, and those moments can sustain us. 


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