George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

I’m in the process of writing my first paper in grad school. My PI suggested I read some essays on writing in order to improve my own writing, which is overly lengthy and obtuse. One such essay was “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell, found here: https://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/. It was insightful and helpful in thinking about my own writing and how I communicate. He also has some useful cultural commentary that still applies today, perhaps even more than it did in 1946.
A quote:
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.”

His suggested rules for writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use 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 good, but I haven’t done enough writing to fully evaluate them yet. For those here who do lots of reading and writing, have you read this essay before? Do you agree/disagree with the rules that Orwell suggests?

4 Likes

As I am very probably a terrible writer, I’m not a good person to ask. But I’m also very apt to give an opinion. So take from it what you will.

I think those are generally pretty good rules.

At one time I was considering law school and a recommended book was called [The Elements of Style](The Elements of Style: Classic Edition (2018): With Editor’s Notes, New Chapters & Study Guide https://www.amazon.com/dp/1643990004/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_0Po.EbX5TJWFV). I think some of what you are talking about from Orwell is a big part of this book as well. Perhaps worth doing a deep dive, though I clearly never did :wink:.

2 Likes

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White was also recommended to me. I haven’t been able to read it yet. This makes two recommendations though so I should definitely check it out.

3 Likes

I think they are fine rules. I believe Chesterton had a complementary suggestion to prefer the Anglo-Saxon-originated word to the Norman-Latin, and to prefer one syllable words. The words resulting from both those rules are often the same.

1 Like

And I would add, for pastors especially, never use a theological word, especially in Latin, unless absolutely necessary.

Definitely. And if you haven’t listened to the Bookening episodes about E. B. White, do so.

4 Likes

The only quibble I have with this rule is that its chief qualifier lies at the very end of the sentence, viz. “which you are used to seeing in print.” If he had followed his own rule No. 3. he’d have written “Never write using trendy expressions.”

An amateur writer could easily construe this rule to mean “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” His writing would suffer badly if he did this. All figures of speech, skillfully used, energize writing and give it grace, verve, and impact.

Will do what? If the long word has more clarity and power, use it. But, don’t strive to use the longest word you can find.

See my rewrite of his rule No. 1 above for an example of Rule No. 3.

I learned to use this rule in seminary when one professor demanded expansive content in our papers, but also imposed cramped word limits. The first semester with him I rewrote my papers many times to accomplish his assignment within his draconian limits.

That is, unless your writing needs to hide or ignore an agent. Propagandists and advertisers love to break this rule, and they’ve got many self-profiting reasons to do so.

This could be another version of Rule No. 1 if these are trendy. Certain academics love to pepper their discourse with Latin, for example. It’s a kind of pissing contest within the academy. Or, a means of intimidation or condescension toward those outside it. Condemnant quo non intellegunt, I always say.

Poor George never saw anything like our day! I just saw a news item reporting that some lady professor got fired for saying “All lives matter.” That sentence follows every one of Orwell’s rules with a vengeance, except that today it is a barbarous thing to say! She’d still have her job if she’d expressed that idea as a foggy, academic prolixity.

3 Likes