Using Orwell to teach good historical writing

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A-level History By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: History » A-level History
Last updated: 23/04/2017
Tags: benefits of writing in english, critical thinking, essay skills, history

In a 1946 piece for the magazine Horizon, the writer George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) suggested that 'the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.' He was arguing against a rise in what he saw as 'bad English', characterised by 'pretentious diction' and 'meaningless words.' Though it is now more than 70 years since he wrote his piece, Orwell's prescriptions for how meaning could be clearly expressed without giving 'an appearance of solidity to pure wind' remains relevant today.         

One of the best ways to engage students with the study of History is to find historical writing that both informs them and makes them consider their own approach to the subject. Orwell is an outstanding example of this. In his 1946 piece, entitled 'Politics and the English Language', Orwell reflected the fraught political conditions in Britain after the Second World War and expressed his disenchantment with the use of political language to obscure meaning. 

Bad English, he suggested, was giving the 'appearance of solidity to pure wind.' Orwell wanted the reader to question why vague and even absurd sentences had become commonplace in twentieth century Britain. One memorable example he quotes is: 'I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate'!

History can seem a complex subject, with many uncertainties, and students can sometimes find it hard to express the intricacies of the subject without resorting to vague or complicated turns of phrase. This isn't helped where historians themselves have been given to using 'pretentious diction' or 'meaningless words'. Through reading a short piece like 'Politics and the English Language', students can draw on Orwell's suggestions to improve their own writing as well as learning about the past in a new and interesting way. Simple tips such as 'never use a long word where a short one will do' and 'never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent' can have a real effect on a student's ability to write a top-grade essay.

The best way to learn about the past is to make it relevant and compelling. In an era of 'Fake News' and social media, which students will be very aware of, Orwell's call to avoid language that makes 'lies sound truthful and murder respectable' seems very timely. If history can be readily applied to their everyday lives, students will be passionate about the subject and ready to learn.           

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