The English Language and Your Ideas

Words are powerful. Mastering the English language will make your life easier. Where it’s common for language to be filled with ready-made phrases, or business speak — “Let’s touch base later so we can drill down on this”, or “Going forward, I think we need a paradigm shift to really get some synergy”—speaking clearly is necessary to get projects done.

The problem with this broken communication isn’t new. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language (first published in 1946), outlines these issues while relating them to the presentation of political ideas. Whether its political speeches or your blog post, you need to put in the effort to get your ideas across. Even with clear communication, it doesn’t mean your idea will be well received, but, Orwell believes:

You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

Success in communicating your ideas comes from truly understanding what you’re trying to accomplish so that you can translate it into things that can actually be said or done.1 The higher altitude something is, the harder it is to explain.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Having a clear, concrete idea allows you to find the right words to express it.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

So you start with the idea and let that choose the words. Dumping meaningless words and phrases from your vocabulary is a start but how do you shape your words into something concise? Orwell offers some steps to form clear sentences:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Relentlessly desire to express your ideas clearly. Put in the effort to remove abstraction from them and constantly edit your ideas and words. It will take more time and way more effort but by doing this, you will gain the trust and understanding of the people around you and grant yourself the permission to do cooler stuff.

  1. It’s not coincidence that this is a trend in the things I write here.↩︎