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9/11 and the Power of Concrete Language

By September 13, 2011June 18th, 2017Uncategorized

In a 1946 essay called “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell railed against the decline of clear prose, writing:

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
As a writer, I’ve tried to make Orwell’s essay my anthem, preferring specific over vague, concrete over abstract, present-tense action over high-level summary.
I thought of that essay yesterday, as I watched Presidents Clinton and Bush dedicate a memorial to the men and women who died on United Flight 93.
Their speeches perfectly illustrated the power of concrete, action-oriented language. You can tell Clinton’s language is more visual than Bush’s just by comparing the verbs they use.
Clinton’s verbs: happened, gave, saved, claiming, smashing.
Bush’s verbs: has, tested, have, is, have, must.
Clinton’s nouns are also more concrete.
Clinton’s nouns: plane, gift, capitol, lives, terrorists, victory, center of American government, citizens, terror, people.
Bush’s nouns: decade, country, natural disaster, economic turmoil, anxieties, challenges, spirited debates, essence, democracy, faith.
Below are highlights from their speeches.
President Clinton:
Your loved ones just happened to be on a plane. With almost no time to decide, they gave the entire country an incalculable gift. They saved the capitol from attack. They saved God knows how many lives. They saved the terrorists from claiming the symbolic victory of smashing the center of American government. And they did it as citizens.
They allowed us to survive as a country that could fight terror and still maintain liberty and still welcome people from all over the world from every religion and race and culture as long as they shared our values. Because ordinary people, given no time at all to decide did the right thing. And 2500 years from now, I hope and pray to God that people will still remember this.
President Bush: 
In the past decade, our country has been tested—by natural disaster, economic turmoil, and anxieties about challenges at home and abroad. There have been spirited debates along the way. That is the essence of democracy. But Americans have never been defined by our disagreements. Whatever challenges we face today and in the future, we must never lose faith in our ability to meet them together. And we must never allow our differences to harden into divisions.
So it is with Flight 93. For as long as this memorial stands, we will remember what the men and women aboard the plane did here. We’ll pay tribute to the courage they showed, the sacrifice they made, and the lives they spared. The United States will never forget. May God bless you all.