To Be Or The Contrary?: Shakespeare For Bureacrats


Arthur Quiller-Couch

Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) was a critic of jargons and the overuse of circumlocutions. His essays on jargons are some of the best on the subject. The following is Quiller-Couch’s version of a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet from his book On the Art of Writing (1916). See how he deliberately mangled “To be or not to be” using circumlocution:

To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.

This passage inspired George Orwell to rewrite a portion of Ecclesiastes in his edifying essay, “Politics and the English Language”, first published in the April 1946 issue of Horizon, Vol. 13, Iss. 76.

Orwell first included the original passage of Ecclesiastes 9:11, which he regarded as good English:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.

This was followed by Orwell’s revised version of the passage, which he referred as the “modern English of the worst sort”:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is

8 thoughts on “To Be Or The Contrary?: Shakespeare For Bureacrats

  1. upon the consumption of the textual offering, i took it upon myself to consider meditating upon and the expressing this outcome of this meditation of this blog posting on your blog, but given that there are a great quantities of demands upon the possible moments in the day in which i can respond with my full attention, my contemplation has led to me to regrettably not to be able to respond at this time, Sincerely and as alluded to earlier in this message regrettably, Eliot.

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