Tag Archives: thought

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. 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. 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. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”


More Barfield, This Time on Logos

This Owen Barfield quotation might strike some of you as interesting. I’m posting it just as food for thought:

“The extraordinarily intimate connection between language and thought (the Greek word λóγος combined, as we should say, both meanings) might lead one to expect that the philosophers at least would have turned their attention to the subject long ago. And so, indeed, they did, but with a curiously disproportionate amount of interest. The cause of this deficiency is, I think, to be found in the fact that Western philosophy, from Aristotle onwards, is itself a kind of offspring of Logic. To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.”

— from Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, which at least one book publisher described as “The seminal text that inspired Tolkien and C.S. Lewis”

Poetic Diction


If you can think it . . .

“Language makes thought, as much as it is made by thought. Thought inhabits language and language is its body.”

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, translation by Hugh J. Silverman

Circumstances color wounds as well as blame

How do people assign blame, and how do they characterize wounds?

Let’s say I was walking on a suburban sidewalk late one afternoon when a car swerved off the road and hit me. I was stuck with a limp for the rest of my life.

The driver’s circumstances would color how I told the story of my limp.

I could say, with a tone of hot disgust, I was HIT by a DRUNK DRIVER. Some people just ignore all common sense!

I could say, with a heavy heart, I was hit by a car when a middle-aged man had a heart attack and died behind the wheel. I feel horrible for his wife and children. I am lucky to be alive.

I could say, with sense of resignation, I was hit by a sweet, little old lady with an oversize hat who has yet to stop apologizing, and she keeps baking me chocolate chip cookies, like twice a week! Oh well, what can ya do?

I wish I had that type of clarity about the accidents of my life, but most of the time, I can hardly tell what the actual outcomes have been.