George Orwell has earned the right to be called one of the finer writers in the English language through such novels as 1984,Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London, and essays like "Shooting an Elephant."
Orwell excoriated totalitarian governments in his work, but he was just as passionate about good writing. Thus, you may want to hear some of Orwells writing tips.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
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:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
From Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language."
IN MY last column, I referred to The Economist’sstyle guide, which includes George Orwell’s famous six rules for writing, taken from “Politics and the English Language”:
(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.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Around the same time, my colleague flagged a candidate for “The world's worst sentence”. It was
Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.
My colleague, too, referred to Orwell’s rules, suggesting that bad writing of this (and other) kinds could be avoided by following them. The most relevant of the rules, in this context was of course number (i). Avoiding clichés keeps writers from crafting a lazy string of mixed metaphors, such as a nightmare casting a shroud in a guise of contagion that resembled a deer so unlucky as to be both caught in headlights and paralysed.
Yet Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and a blogger at Language Log, has taken us to task. Orwell says “never” use metaphors you are used to seeing in print. But, as Mr Liberman documents in many examples, The Economist has repeatedly referred to shrouds, nightmares, contagions and deer caught in headlights in our own pages.
The problem is the absolute nature of Orwell’s rules. The first five all include either a “never” or an “always”. Critics point out that a strict application of these rules would make for very strange writing. That's why Orwell himself doesn’t always obey them. Of the tensed transitive verbs in “Politics and the English Language”, at least a fifth are in the passive voice. Indeed, one rears its head in the second paragraph:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
It would been easy for Orwell to write this sentence in the active voice:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which one can avoid if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.
So Orwell exposes himself right there in paragraph two.
Geoffrey Pullum, Mr Liberman’s stablemate at Language Log, goes so far as to dismiss Orwell’s essay as “dishonest”. But was Orwell aiming to mislead when he told writers never to use the passive? No. He merely failed to hold himself to this rule at all times. That simply makes him human—a frailty shared by journalists at The Economist. (Well, most journalists; our science editor we're not always sure about.) Orwell accommodated poetic license in his sixth rule: “Break any of these rules rather than say something outright barbarous.” A hint of flexibility. Yet he should have gone a little further.
Indeed, here are his rules liberated from those dogmatic “nevers” and the “always”:
(i) Avoid using metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Think of fresh ones wherever you can.
(ii) Prefer short words to long ones.
(iii) Try cutting a lot of your word-count, especially those words that add little extra meaning.
(iv) Don’t over-use the passive voice. And whether passive or active, be clear who did what to whom.
(v) Prefer everyday English to foreign, scientific or jargon words.
And then here’s revised rule (vi), to be borne in mind by the language pundit.
(vi) Good writing is no place for the tyrant. Never say “never” and always avoid “always”, or at the least handle them with care. Overusing such words is an invitation for critics to hold you to your own impossible standard.
Do you have a question for Johnson, or a suggestion for a future column? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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