“To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”
“Politics and the English Language,” George’s masterful essay on clear, compelling prose, is well worth reading whatever type of writing you aspire to. In concise, crystal-clear words, he identifies a number of ills that pepper poor writing. Here’s an overview:
Dying metaphors: Vivid metaphors assist thought, says George, “by evoking a visual image.” Worn-out metaphors, however, such as “no axe to grind” or “swan song,” are so overused that they’ve lost their evocative power.
Verbal false limbs: These are created when writers abandon clear, simple verbs such as “break,” or “stop” in favor of phrases, which consist of a noun or adjective “tacked onto a general-purpose verb.” The result? Filler phrases like: “have the effect of,” “play a leading part in,” or “serve the purpose of.”
Pretentious words: George was a stickler for clarity and he disliked two-bit words. Some of those he nominated in this category are: phenomenon, constitute, utilize, effective, virtual. In his view, these types of words are “used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”
Meaningless words: To George’s mind, many writers dilute the power of their prose by liberally sprinkling it with words so broad and abstract that they have little true meaning for the reader. Examples: values, natural, sentimental.
As a model of fresh, appealing language, George quotes a verse from Ecclesiastes:
“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.”
This passage, George notes, contains “49 words but only 60 syllables.” It uses simple, everyday words, expresses six vivid images, and has only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be viewed as vague.
What beautiful imagery and economy of style! May it inspire us all!