1 May 2006

Orwell and the English language

I've recently finished reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I won't delve into the details of the story, as it's fairly well-known, but I was impressed not just by the plot but also by the language used by Orwell. It's a well-written book, and one I'd highly recommend.

While reading the Presentation Zen blog, I noticed this comment about Orwell's six rules of writing. The original source of these rules, I discovered, is a famous essay called Politics and the English Language.

The essay argues against the bloated language used in political speech in the 1940s. Unfortunately, you can still see the same problems today. The overuse of common metaphors is particularly annoying, once it is pointed out to you. For example, in this Sydney Morning Herald editorial discussing foreign aid:

With more money in the kitty Australia should be able to address urgent grassroots needs in health and education, without detracting from good governance programs.

I'd suggest to anyone who writes, especially anyone who writes for a living, read Politics and the English language and take note of Orwell's six rules:

  • 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.

As he says so plainly:

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.