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Cybernetics and the English language

If you loved writing, why would you ask ChatGPT to write for you? Better ask it to read for you, as we did at Verb. We were moved by ChatGPT’s tireless focus to read any text without complain, summarize it, give it a headline, and even analyze it following George Orwell’s rules in his essay “Politics and the English language,” a Verb’s favorite.

Orwell published this essay in 1946 to help use language “as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought.” He said that bad habits might trip anyone into meaningless language, so towards the end of his essay he set a few simple rules to keep you on track:

“i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

You give ChatGPT material to read using its input box. The box is only one line tall, but it will expand to fit any amount of text you enter. For example, you could enter the prompt “Write a headline for the following text,” and then paste the 500 words of an article. Wait a few seconds and you will get back an easy-to-read headline. It might not be original, but it will be correct. You could change your prompt for “Summarize the following text,” or “Give me 3 bullets about the following text.”

We created a more elaborate prompt to ask ChatGPT to analyze text using Orwell’s rules. It read as follows:

“Tally this text from 0 to 5 by giving it 1 point if it uses original metaphors, 1 point if it only uses short words, 1 point if it uses no unnecessary words, 1 point if it only uses active voice, and 1 point if it uses no jargon,”

And then pasted the 600 words of Roxana Belaunde’s brilliant column in last week’s issue of this newsletter, edited by Ivan Rothkegel. This was ChatGPT’s reply:

“This text scores a 4 out of 5.

  • 1 point for using original metaphors
  • 1 point for using short words
  • 1 point for using no unnecessary words
  • 1 point for using active voice
  • 0 points for using no jargon (terms like “fintech,” “remittances,” “migrant workers,” and “economic downturn” could be considered jargon for some readers)”

ChatGPT sure can read! As a writer, you could use this same analysis to remove jargon from your text, so that more people can understand what you’re saying. For example, you could change the ugly word “remittances” for the slightly shorter “transfers” or even “money,” and you could change “fintech” for the more durable “digital.”

As a reader, it gives you a superpower: you could run this analysis on your entire news subscription and only read text scoring 4 and up. Your subscription has more articles than you could read anyway, so why not save your time for the best? (Notice we didn’t say “best of the crop” because that is not an original metaphor).

We asked ChatGPT if it could make the analysis easier to repeat:

– That’s very useful, thank you. Can you remember this scoring system if we give it a name? So I can ask you to tally other texts without entering the full prompt

– Yes, I can remember it. Let’s call it the “Clarity and Concision Score.”

– I took the prompt from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English language.” Should we call it the “Orwell Score?”

– Yes, we could call it the “Orwell Score” as a reference to George Orwell’s essay.

– I will use the Orwell Score always

– Understood, I’ll be happy to help with the “Orwell Score” for any texts you provide.

Joy and disbelief, and then a realization: we just programmed a giant computer by telling it what we want in plain English. If our analysis was a software program, we would call the Orwell Score a “function.” This has value.

How about $20?

On February 1st, ChatGPT maker OpenAI announced a $20 per month subscription that will give you access to the system even during peak times, faster response times, and priority access to new features. This could be useful if you depend on ChatGPT for work, because sometimes you can get a “system is at capacity” message.

Kyle Wiggers of TechCrunch reported that ChatGPT is expensive to run at a few cents per chat. OpenAI has said the system has over a million users, so you can see how easy it would be to spend millions of dollars per day operating the service. Enough to explain Microsoft’s multibillion dollar investment in the company.

A good time to know what you want

Image: Orwell Foundation

We have the original text of “Politics and the English language” thanks to The Orwell Foundation, an independent charity which at the top of its website has the Orwell’s quote “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art.” For inspiration to know what you want, visit the website to read Orwell’s nonfiction or subscribe to Orwell Daily to get his manuscripts in serialized form over email.

We are currently receiving “The Wigan Pier Diaries” on the same days of 1936 Orwell wrote them as he traveled to that inland town outside Manchester (his handwritten map is above): “All the broken ice had been blowing up to the south end, and the waves were rocking it up and down, making a clank-clank, clank-clank – the most melancholy noise I ever heard. (Mem. to use in novel some time and to have an empty Craven A packet bobbing up and down among the ice.)”