Friday, December 7, 2012


I'm not certain that I can write English well and I know that I often struggle to speak it.  But, being from a generation that was actually educated in the language, I know that I can speak it, write it and read it better than those who have had the misfortune of having attended school in the last twenty years.  This interests me because, as someone who works in a written medium, I'm trying to communicate ideas in language and it's possible that, regardless of my level of mastery of English, the number of people who can comprehend what I'm doing is dwindling rapidly.

Some of you may know that I work in the restaurant industry.  I've been in the business for a long time and I'm used to working with young people.  It's fun to work with young kids and I enjoy it, for the most part.  Most of the people who I work with are teenagers and kids in their early twenties who are going to school or working their first real job.  And while I hate to sound like a cranky old man, these kids are, for the most part, morons.  Very few of them have any understanding of history, literature, philosophy, economics, politics or anything you need to understand in order to live well.  They certainly have no understanding of English, grammar or spelling.  I've threatened, on more than one occasion, to buy everyone I work with a dictionary and an English grammar for Christmas.  I've also accused them of speaking Dolphin, which is some kind of high-pitched squeal that I've yet to master, and Gibberish.  I often quote Jules Winnfield. And then I yell at them in German. 

The point of all of this, besides insulting young people, is that I was reading an article about how English has devolved over the last twenty or twenty-five years.  The author talked about how we're failing to teach the language and how that resonates across all areas of society.  It was a relatively interesting and familiar argument but it made me think of George Orwell and "Politics and the English Language".  So I looked the essay up online and reread it for the first time in many years.

I first read Orwell's essay, like many others, as a college freshman.  At the University of Illinois, all freshmen had to take an introductory rhetoric course, which was the equivalent, I suppose, of English 101.  We read Orwell and The Elements of Style and learned how to construct sentences, paragraphs and essays.  We learned how to write and, more importantly, how to think critically.  To this day, I still believe it was the most important class I ever took and my rhetoric professor was one of the two best teachers I ever had.

Rereading Orwell, it amazed me how much the lessons of that essay has stayed with me.  When writing in a more formal style than I apply in a blog post, where I tend to ramble and I'm usually pressed for time, Orwell's rules still influence me.  I use his rules all the time and had forgotten where I had picked them up.

For fun, I'll give Orwell's six rules from "Politics and the English Language":

(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 the 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.

Rules two, three and a casual combination of one and five have always been in my mind when writing anything over the last twenty-five years.  Always, even after I had forgotten where I first read these rules, Orwell has probably had more of an influence on my writing than anyone.

I'm now thinking that, along with dictionaries and grammar books, everyone will also be getting a copy of this essay for Christmas.

Note as to the title of this post:  I actually thought I invented the term Anglish, although I like to call it Angle-ish.  I figured that the word "English" must have derived from something like the word "Anglish" and that's the word I often use, along with Dolphin and Gibberish, to describe the devolved form of English.  But, it appears, as happens often, that I'm wrong and I did not invent the word.

Another random note:  I just wanted to point out that I went to a public high school.  My family wasn't rich and I didn't get a fancy, private school education.  But we read Shakespeare when we were high school freshmen.  We read Milton when we were sophomores.  We read Faulkner when we were juniors.  We read Kafka when we were seniors.  You can't write well if you don't read well.                     

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