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Rationality and the English Language

35 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2007 10:55PM

Yesterday, someone said that my writing reminded them of George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.  I was honored.  Especially since I'd already thought of today's topic.

If you really want an artist's perspective on rationality, then read Orwell; he is mandatory reading for rationalists as well as authors.  Orwell was not a scientist, but a writer; his tools were not numbers, but words; his adversary was not Nature, but human evil.  If you wish to imprison people for years without trial, you must think of some other way to say it than "I'm going to imprison Mr. Jennings for years without trial."  You must muddy the listener's thinking, prevent clear images from outraging conscience.  You say, "Unreliable elements were subjected to an alternative justice process."

Orwell was the outraged opponent of totalitarianism and the muddy thinking in which evil cloaks itself—which is how Orwell's writings on language ended up as classic rationalist documents on a level with Feynman, Sagan, or Dawkins.

"Writers are told to avoid usage of the passive voice."  A rationalist whose background comes exclusively from science, may fail to see the flaw in the previous sentence; but anyone who's done a little writing should see it right away.  I wrote the sentence in the passive voice, without telling you who tells authors to avoid passive voice.  Passive voice removes the actor, leaving only the acted-upon.  "Unreliable elements were subjected to an alternative justice process"—subjected by who?  What does an "alternative justice process" do?  With enough static noun phrases, you can keep anything unpleasant from actually happening.

Journal articles are often written in passive voice.  (Pardon me, some scientists write their journal articles in passive voice.  It's not as if the articles are being written by no one, with no one to blame.)  It sounds more authoritative to say "The subjects were administered Progenitorivox" than "I gave each college student a bottle of 20 Progenitorivox, and told them to take one every night until they were gone."  If you remove the scientist from the description, that leaves only the all-important data.  But in reality the scientist is there, and the subjects are college students, and the Progenitorivox wasn't "administered" but handed over with instructions.  Passive voice obscures reality.

Judging from the comments I get on Overcoming Bias, someone will protest that using the passive voice in a journal article is hardly a sin—after all, if you think about it, you can realize the scientist is there.  It doesn't seem like a logical flaw.  And this is why rationalists need to read Orwell, not just Feynman or even Jaynes.

Nonfiction conveys knowledge, fiction conveys experience.  Medical science can extrapolate what would happen to a human unprotected in a vacuum.  Fiction can make you live through it.

Some rationalists will try to analyze a misleading phrase, try to see if there might possibly be anything meaningful to it, try to construct a logical interpretation.  They will be charitable, give the author the benefit of the doubt.  Authors, on the other hand, are trained not to give themselves the benefit of the doubt.  Whatever the audience thinks you said is what you said, whether you meant to say it or not; you can't argue with the audience no matter how clever your justifications.

A writer knows that readers will not stop for a minute to think.  A fictional experience is a continuous stream of first impressions.  A writer-rationalist pays attention to the experience words create.  If you are evaluating the public rationality of a statement, and you analyze the words deliberatively, rephrasing propositions, trying out different meanings, searching for nuggets of truthiness, then you're losing track of the first impression—what the audience sees, or rather feels.

A novelist would notice the screaming wrongness of "The subjects were administered Progenitorivox."  What life is here for a reader to live?  This sentence creates a distant feeling of authoritativeness, and that's all—the only experience is the feeling of being told something reliable.  A novelist would see nouns too abstract to show what actually happened—the postdoc with the bottle in his hand, trying to look stern; the student listening with a nervous grin.

My point is not to say that journal articles should be written like novels, but that a rationalist should become consciously aware of the experiences which words create.  A rationalist must understand the mind and how to operate it.  That includes the stream of consciousness, the part of yourself that unfolds in language.  A rationalist must become consciously aware of the actual, experiential impact of phrases, beyond their mere propositional semantics.

Or to say it more bluntly:  Meaning does not excuse impact!

I don't care what rational interpretation you can construct for an applause light like "AI should be developed through democratic processes".  That cannot excuse its irrational impact of signaling the audience to applaud, not to mention its cloudy question-begging vagueness.

Here is Orwell, railing against the impact of cliches, their effect on the experience of thinking:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder —one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy... A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself...

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. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. 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. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

Peirce might have written that last paragraph.  More than one path can lead to the Way.

 

Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

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Previous post: "Hug the Query"

Comments (32)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 13 September 2007 12:22:26AM 4 points [-]

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word. Excellent advice.

Comment author: Cihan_Baran 13 September 2007 02:09:32AM 1 point [-]

Yay! And I am honored that my mentioning of Orwell's essay lead you to discus it!

I am not quite sure I agree with this, however,:"Whatever the audience thinks you said is what you said, whether you meant to say it or not; you can't argue with the audience no matter how clever your justifications."

Doesn't this make misunderstanding or misinterpretation -just by definition- impossible? I do think misinterpretation is a genuine possibility.

Also, you left out the good bit in your Orwell quote (probably to shorten the length):

one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. (Emphasis mine)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2007 03:48:22AM 0 points [-]

I do think misinterpretation is a genuine possibility.

Of course, but it's always the author's fault, at least if you happen to be an author. It's not the audience who misinterprets your words, it's you.

Also, you left out the good bit in your Orwell quote

Vivid imagery, yes; rational argument, no. Orwell wrote some classic stuff on Traditional Rationality but I never said he was a True Bayesian Master.

Comment author: DimitriK 03 November 2014 03:31:29PM 0 points [-]

I agree with cihan here. It may not be a rational argument by itself, but it enhances the preceding argument because it makes you feel what the argument is all about. Besides, I got the impression your post was about how this is an important factor often missing from discussion. Or were you talking about active vs passive voice only?

Comment author: Jeremy_McKibben 13 September 2007 03:55:01AM 0 points [-]

Excellent post.

Comment author: Bill_Mill 13 September 2007 04:37:44AM 2 points [-]

I really liked the article; but if you're going to talk about Orwell and writers, and be so self-conscious about it, shouldn't it be "subected by whom"?

Comment author: taryneast 11 February 2011 09:56:47AM 3 points [-]

Shouldn't that be "subjected by whom" ?

:)

Comment author: anonymous4 13 September 2007 04:43:23AM 8 points [-]

"Authors, on the other hand, are trained not to give themselves the benefit of the doubt."

Trained by whom?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 September 2007 05:50:53AM 5 points [-]

Yes, well, I never said I was a True Writing Master either.

Comment author: Rick_Smith 13 September 2007 10:33:36AM 0 points [-]

Another great post.

Comment author: Doug2 13 September 2007 01:22:32PM 0 points [-]

Amen! Wonderful post! I couldn't agree more.

I would also note that—larger philosophical issues aside—from a pure efficiency standpoint, the passive voice uses more words than the active voice to convey the same meaning, again confusing meaning.

Bravo on this post!

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries 14 September 2007 05:30:03AM 3 points [-]

Wonderful.

I am a writer and Orwell is my hero. I love to see him discussed, and I find there is never a time at which I couldn't use a refresher. "Politics and the English Language" is an all-time gem.

When you say "If you analyze words deliberatively, rephrasing propositions, trying out different meanings, searching for nuggets of truthiness, then you're losing track of the first impression", it's a bit confusing. It sounds like you are saying "Don't use stock phrases as interchangeable tokens in an attempt to construct something truthy-sounding," which I gather is your meaning, which Orwell would endorse, and which would be of a piece with the rest of this blog.

But it also sounds very close to saying, "A writer should write from the gut and not worry about rephrasing and editing because editing is phony," which is of course the opposite of what Orwell teaches. What the most romantic-minded writers call "from the gut" is very often nothing more than received wisdom that "feels" true because they have never really questioned it. A good writer, like you say, is always reevaluating his words and the ways they might be construed. He rephrases his prepostions not his propositons, if I may be so cheeky.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 September 2007 05:50:56AM 1 point [-]

Daniel, I was thinking of the reader over-analyzing, not the author. Specifically, I'm thinking of all the times I've said, "Don't say X, it's misleading" and then a commenter says, "Well, if you interpret X to mean Y, it's sorta true." I edited the passage a bit, hopefully making it a bit clearer what I'm worried about.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 25 October 2009 12:40:44AM *  13 points [-]

I have to point out, you've made a mistake of terminology here, one frequently pointed out at Language Log. You seem to have used "passive voice" to mean "construction that is vague as to agency". It's important to note weaseling, as you point out, but the use of passive voice isn't a good heuristic for that. Consider your own example of "Unreliable elements were subjected to an alternative justice process"; little of the weaseliness comes from the use of the passive. It wouldn't be much less weaselly if written as "When dealing with such unreliable elements, those responsible apply an alternative justice process." Who's responsible? I dunno.

Comment author: RobinZ 25 October 2009 02:53:03AM 0 points [-]

Excellent point - the trouble is not that the writer used a passive construction, but that they obscured WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THI...I mean, the actor. And the victim and the process, now that I think of it.

Comment author: DSimon 10 July 2010 04:12:35PM 5 points [-]

Better yet, "When dealing with such unreliable elements, the authorities apply an alternative justice process." By not directly mentioning the notion of responsibility, we just have an authority doing properly authority-ish things, and the weasleyness is obscured fully once more.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 10 July 2010 05:50:47PM 1 point [-]

Yes, that is better.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 26 October 2010 07:16:13PM *  12 points [-]

Agreed with your main thrust. Additionally, you touch glancingly on some points I want to highlight.

  1. Some scientists write their journal articles in passive voice. It's not as if the articles are being written by no one, with no one to blame

Right. And your sentence suggests the scientists are to blame.

Contrast 1b: "Some journal editors publish only articles in passive voice*."

Those sentences might describe the same present world, but they make different predictions. #1 implicitly predicts that a scientist can write a journal article "in the active voice", while #1b explicitly predicts that they often can't (because the relevant journals' editors might not publish an article "in the active voice").

So which sentence is correct? Well, maybe you haven't a clue, and it's beside your point. Maybe your point really is that "Journal articles are often written in passive voice."

That is, sometimes one obscures agency because one genuinely isn't sure who the agent is, and believes it's better to be vague than to be misleading. There's a legitimate difference between obscuring something known and obscuring something obscure.

Arguably, the real fallacy underlying all of this is the improperly excluded middle. If there were only two ways to write -- identifying agency, or using the passive voice -- then "avoid the passive voice!" would be equivalent to "identify the agent!", albeit longer. But there aren't, and it isn't.

  1. What does an "alternative justice process" do?

The problem here is entirely different.

"I subjected the unreliable elements to an alternate justice process" doesn't obscure the subject, but it still points away, rather than pointing at. The sentence asserts that whatever I used is a justice process, and isn't a standard one, but it doesn't actually say what I did. And it asserts that whoever I used it on was an element, and wasn't reliable, but doesn't actually say what it was.

This is a common way of pretending to say something without actually saying anything. It raises the question: do I not know what I'm talking about, or am I just refusing to say?

Incidentally, Avoid the passive voice! has the same problem. There are LOTS of ways to avoid the passive voice, most of which don't accomplish your goal. Presumably you mean "Identify the agent!"... so why not say that?

  • I perhaps should write "with obscured agency" here, as per sniffjoy's entirely accurate comment. But making two corrections at the same time seems the greater sin, so I rely on scarequotes instead.
Comment author: CronoDAS 07 March 2011 12:22:12AM *  3 points [-]

When writing essays for English class in high school, I was explicitly forbidden from using the word "I"...

Comment author: Yvain 07 March 2011 12:31:44AM *  16 points [-]

Did you by any chance go to high school in a Randian dystopia?

Comment author: CronoDAS 07 March 2011 12:41:22AM 2 points [-]

Heh.

More specifically, I was forbidden for using such phrases as "In my opinion" or "I think" or "I believe" on the grounds that

1) "it's not the correct style for an academic essay"

and

2) "you're the author, so saying 'I believe X' instead of just 'X' is redundant."

Perhaps ironically, my 9th grade English teacher spent a month or so on the novel Anthem by Ayn Rand... I believe it was my 10th grade English teacher that was the source of the injunction against the use of the word "I" though...

Comment author: Vladimir_M 07 March 2011 12:56:05AM *  6 points [-]

Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Yesterday, someone said that my writing reminded them of George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. I was honored.

To continue with the thread necromancy, it's a dubious honor. I've seen several well argued scathing critiques of that essay by linguists. See for example the Language Log posts by David Beaver and Geoffrey Pullum discussing Orwell's nonsensical claims about the passive voice, the use of metaphors, etc.

Orwell was the outraged opponent of totalitarianism and the muddy thinking in which evil cloaks itself

There's plenty of "thinking" in Orwell's books that it would be charitable to call muddy. Orwell was one hell of a good writer, but intellectually he's way overrated. Even when it comes to his best work, 1984, every now and then I'm struck when I read some older book and realize that significant parts of the plot and philosophy of 1984 were borrowed from it. (If you think I'm exaggerating, just read Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and James Burnham's wartime books.)

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 06 September 2011 03:33:30PM 0 points [-]

I've read both the posts you linked to -- and they're both horribly written nonsense.

They attack an essay that itself argues that all of the guidelines he stated can be occasionally broken, by showing how it occasionally breaks its own guidelines. Other flaws supposedly pointed out (e.g. that Orwell doesn't provide evidence for a superior quality in the past) are just factually false: Orwell gives as counterexample the English translation of Ecclesiastes.

Seriously, these posts don't say anything else: they just accuse it of a hypocrisy that isn't actually there. Are these the best arguments against Orwell's essay? If so, that's high praise for it indeed.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 06 September 2011 11:28:33PM *  5 points [-]

I see at least three problems with your criticism:

  1. Orwell doesn't provide any useful guidelines on when the exceptions to his rules should apply. He only says you shouldn't use them when it would make you sound "outright barbarous." But this makes these rules useless as advice, since the exceptions are supposed to be guided by aesthetic feeling -- and those whose feeling is refined enough ipso facto already know what to do even without Orwell.

  2. The second LL article cites a result that the use of passives in Orwell's essay is in fact well above the average found in a large sample of English prose. So whatever exeptions to his rules he has in mind, this necesarily implies that he breaks his own advice. There is no reasonable interpretaton of his admonition to avoid passives, whatever caveats and exceptions are attached to it, that would permit writing a whole essay with such an exceptionally high rate of passives.

  3. One sample of old text is very weak evidence of the average quality of old writing. Especially considering that it's from a highly non-representative source. (By which I mean a high-budget collaborative translation by top-rate English stylists, which has also survived popularity competition with other Biblical translations.)

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 07 September 2011 12:03:06AM 1 point [-]

But this makes these rules useless as advice, since the exceptions are supposed to be guided by aesthetic feeling -- and those whose feeling is refined enough ipso facto already know what to do even without Orwell.

Orwell prefaces his rules by the following sentence:

one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

In short, he explicitly states that it's when this aesthetic instinct fails that the rules are to be applied. And he talks in detail about the process he suggests be used BEFORE turning to the rules as a last resort.

The second LL article cites a result that the use of passives in Orwell's essay is in fact well above the average found in a large sample of English prose.

Possible, but mostly irrelevant, unless we're shown that Orwell used the passive somewhere where he ought have used the active...

Comment author: MatthewW 28 October 2011 10:41:07PM 2 points [-]

The useful advice is in the first 5000 words of the essay, most importantly in the examples of bad writing. The 100 words or so of 'rules' are just a summary at the end.

This kind of teaching is common in other subjects. For example, in a Go textbook it's not rare to see a chapter containing a number of examples and a purported 'rule' to cover them, where the rule as stated is broken all the time in professional play. It would be a mistake to conclude that the author isn't a strong player, or that the chapter doesn't contain helpful advice. The 'rule' is just a way to describe a group of related examples.

I think it's better to think of the 'rules' in Orwell's essay more like mnemonics for what he's said earlier, rather than instructions to be followed on their own.

Comment author: FAWS 22 November 2011 07:58:14PM *  1 point [-]

It would however be reasonable to conclude that the author does not have strong analytic understanding of what exactly makes them a strong player/good writer, and be cautious about the more abstract parts of the advice, similar to how native speakers can tell you whether a sentence is grammatical, but are usually less reliable for giving you general rules than speakers who learned the language as adults to a high level of proficiency.

Comment author: Tzalumen 11 September 2012 08:54:27AM 2 points [-]

This is perhaps a bit after the event, but the word that kept screaming through my mind as I read this was 'context'. I was surprised, upon searching for the word, that nowhere in your article or anywhere in the comments below did anyone mention the word 'context'. Context is what the passive voice strips from a statement, and the lack of context is what obscures the meaning. It's a minor complaint, but it struck me as odd, the literal lack of 'context'.

Comment author: slicedtoad 07 July 2015 07:32:47PM 2 points [-]

Link to Orwell's paper is broken. New one: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/