May Contain Blueberries

the sometimes journal of Jeremy Beker

In April of 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Politics and the English Language. In his essay, he drew a correlation between the quality of diction and writing and the quality of political thought by the population of the United States. He saw a shift in the English language, especially in its use in politics, towards communication which was not intended to inform the reader but to obscure the intentions of the writer or the facts being shared.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Orwell’s observation of political speech in the mid-40s is just as true today as it was then. Serious issues that affect the lives of every person are distilled to meaningless simplifications. And issues which have virtually no impact on citizens daily lives are exaggerated into rallying cries to bring forward the anger of one political base or the other. (I have intentionally not given any examples of each as I don’t want to give this article a partisan bias. All politicians do this.)

As a lover of technology and one who always hopes that technology will be an enabler of a better and more educated future I hate that the advance of technology has made the situation worse in many areas. Television created the “sound bite.” Twitter and Facebook translated it to an electronic medium that requires or encourages short dialog. While a short phrase can be well crafted, it lacks the ability to give the detail that I feel is required to bring about an informed audience.

An informed audience is critical in all aspects of life, not just politics. I do not believe there is ever a situation in life where being less informed about a topic better prepares you for dealing with it. Computers and engineering certainly.

In my professional and personal life I am becoming well known for being pedantic. In the realm of technical discussion being specific in your communication is critical. Jon Postel codified this idea for computing as “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.” [1. Robustness Principle ] It is a simple idea that you should be specific and critical of any information you send to others to ensure its meaning is exact while being generous in receiving information from others if their intentions are clear.

This rule applies to human communications as well. Returning to Orwell:

It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

I see that in my office; the repeated use of inaccurate or incorrect language when discussing projects results in inaccuracies spreading from person to person. By not using precise language, people are unable to explain how our products work. This miasma of uncertainty grows over time causing confusion and mistakes.

I find myself worrying that I have become a curmudgeon on this topic. I insist on being pedantic and have been known to take on an inquisitor-like persona in an attempt to extract the actual meaning from someone I am talking with. I hope, however, that I can be a small agent in executing on Orwell’s desire:

The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

I hope that you will take the time to read Orwell’s essay and begin taking “the necessary trouble.” He finishes with a set of guidelines for better writing and speaking that are worth taking note of. They will make all of us better writers and speakers. They even help with writing shorter tweets.