George Orwell the Tyrant? Redoing His 6 Rules for Writing
George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, published in 1946, is a battle cry in the fight against bad English.
In Orwell’s eyes, written English has become slovenly, vague and meaningless, resulting in a decadent cilvilisation (it’s not as hyperbolic as it sounds considering that the 1940s wasn’t humanity’s finest decade).
The legacy of Orwell’s rant against sloppy writing is the following six commandments.
- 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.
The standard of English writing would improve immeasurably if more writers, including lawyers, online marketers, economists, public sector workers, and even computer programmers, took Orwell’s six rules to heart.
Students and authors should also sooner take heed of Orwell’s rules than swallow another thesaurus. As an editor, I read a lot of academic writing and novels, and three common flaws permeate it – wordiness, vagueness and pomposity. These are the three problems that Orwell was so fired up about.
The importance of clear and accessible is uncontested. Language creates our reality as it’s the filter through which our experience of life is generated – one recent study, for example, indicated that we didn’t know ‘blue’ until fairly recently.
Although Orwell may be a prophet to the plain English movement, no prophet should be above rebuke (take note, religion).
For a man who rallied against authoritarianism in 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell’s prescription for clear writing is oddly totalitarian. The absolutism of the six rules is striking, especially the prohibition on the use of established metaphors (they can actually be quite melodic to read) and the passive voice. Arguably, both aren’t as grievous a threat to good writing as wordiness, vagueness and pomposity.
Even The Economist, whose Style Guide begins with Orwell’s 6 rules for writing, shook their British fist at the first five rules for including a “never” or an “always”. According to it, “Good writing is no place for the tyrant”.
The strict application of these rules would not only be extremely difficult, they’d make writing a rules-based, joyless affair. Like any creative pursuit, writing isn’t something that benefits from being shackled by prescription.
Here’s my shot at improving on George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing to make them less totalitarian: