PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Let’s leave aside for the moment Matthew 23:1-3, in which the Nazarene waxes somewhat acid on the topic of those who can’t seem to live by their own injunctions. Instead, consider a later, secular platitude expressing more or less the same idea in 12th Century Anglo-Saxon: “Ac theah ic wyrs do thonne ic the lære ne do thu na swa swa ic do, ac do swa ic the lære gyf ic the wel lære.” (Roughly, “Do as I say, not as I do.”) Like most clichés that hang tough through the ages, it resonates with good sense.

Next, consider this mini-tanti of which Tom Freeman reminded me when he too quoted it recently in his excellent language blog The Stroppy Editor:

“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

It’s a great expository rant, lambasting euphemistic language (as in those italicized phrases) while exposing the underlying purpose of euphemism: to decouple us from guilt. Yet despite other indications of nuanced expertise — vivid description and sophisticated use of anaphora — this brief quotation contains thirteen passive verb-forms. Unless I missed something, none are in the active voice.

Is it conceivable that someone capable of writing so powerfully would never have stumbled across George Orwell’s renowned, browbeating essay “Politics and the English Language”? Or, if he had, not taken special note of Orwell’s fourth rule?

“IV. Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

Yes and no. What’s especially interesting about this swatch of prose, notwithstanding its presumably spineless passivity, is that George Orwell wrote it. You can find it, as you were surely going to guess, in “Politics and the English Language,” about halfway down.

http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/


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