Orwell’s rules for English

September 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm 8 comments

imagesLorena left this comment on the post about William Lobdell’s book:

“In writing school I was taught that that’s the way to write [with simple language]. That there is no need to puff up the writing with long, obscure words to get your message across.”

I drafted the post below over five months ago and never posted it, so this is a good opportunity. It confirms what Lorena said.

For those of you who write… These rules have been helpful to me. They are found near the end of this essay, “Politics and the English Language“, by George Orwell in 1946. I use item 3 regularly for sentences and paragraphs as well. I probably break most of them most of the time…

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.


Entry filed under: writing.

a kind of a cancer existential crises

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Temaskian  |  October 1, 2009 at 2:08 am

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

    Why not?

  • 2. atimetorend  |  October 1, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Don’t know, maybe because it would sound cliche?

  • 3. Temaskian  |  October 1, 2009 at 7:43 am

    Ah, I see.

  • 4. Lorena  |  October 1, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Exactly! They become cliches, plus it shows lack of originality.

    Another reason that comes to mind is that when a metaphor is heard the first time, a mental image is made. When the same person hears the same metaphor thereafter, the original mental image will prevail. When we give people fresh metaphors, we can be more sure that they will see what we want them to see.

  • 5. The Rambling Taoist  |  October 1, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    While I certainly understand the motivation behind a list such as this, I think it’s only pertinent for those individuals who struggle with writing.

    Writing is one of my strong points and I’ve learned simply to allow myself to go with the flow. This is not to suggest that I don’t edit what I write — I certainly do! — but I even edit within the flow.

    I often use big words and/or ones not typically used in general conversation. In fact, and this will probably sound weird, I often use words that just pop into my head and I have to grab a dictionary to look up to see what they mean! In almost every single case though, it’s precisely the correct word to convey what I’m trying to get across.

  • 6. Brandt  |  October 1, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    I do believe I would miserably fail Orwell’s writing test.

    If I had to use “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought” while under the constraints of those rules, I wouldn’t know what to do.

    Plus, I really enjoy saying things that are outright babarous. I probably wouldn’t write if I couldn’t say barbarous things.

  • 7. atimetorend  |  October 2, 2009 at 6:44 am

    Great points, and Brandt, it would be hard to imagine a Jesting Fool post having followed those guidelines. :^)

  • 8. TitforTat  |  October 3, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I would imagine for most people simplicity works best. So in a sense, complicated writing may be more for the writer than the reader.

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