Orwell’s Writing Rules Are Made to Be Broken

By Mark Nichol

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, has been celebrated far and wide (including on this site) for his essay “Politics and the English Language.” The moral force of his argument is undeniable: Orwell, a socialist, witnessed the, well, Orwellian, tyranny of the Soviet Union and feared the power of propaganda and the insidiousness of authoritarian obfuscation, hence his passion for clear, simple writing.

Toward the end of this justifiably influential tract, Orwell exhorted readers to adhere to six commandments about writing. However, as he himself wrote in a subsequent paragraph, “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.” Beyond that caution, though, literal adherence to his dicta is inadvisable, and to some extent I disagree with each of them.

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

Certainly, many figures of speech such as “bite the bullet,” “push the envelope,” and “go the extra mile” should be sent to the metaphor retirement home, and I’ve warned about buzzwords, but not every common figure of speech has worn out its welcome. They can be especially catchy when used in punny contexts: A government agency turns over a new leaf about deforestation, a rock band plays musical chairs with its lineup, a pharmaceutical company’s setback is a bitter pill to swallow.

2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.

Utilization of sesquipedalian vocabulary unquestionably mitigates comprehension, but never is dishearteningly uncompromising. Better to advise minimizing multisyllabism. But must I always write do in place of accomplish? Spread instead of disseminate? Try in favor of endeavor? That’s an oddly totalitarian rule, coming from Orwell.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Um, is always really necessary in that sentence? And “Omit a word” is more concise than “cut a word out.” But omit has more letters than cut. Do you see where this is going? The answer is, too far. Striving to attain Hemingwayesque conciseness is appropriate for assembly instructions, and journalistic writing should be as transparent as possible, but Bill Bryson never met an adjective or an adverb he didn’t like, and if anyone’s complained about that, I haven’t read the grievance. In moderation (or, in Bryson’s case, in excess), modification is merited.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The case for active language is often strong. But passive constructions are acceptable when the actor in a sentence (in the following sentence’s case, the “seer”) is not significant: “Punk music can be seen as a reaction to the overblown theatricality of disco and arena rock.” And sometimes the object is more important than the subject. Yes, favor active voice, but don’t categorically prohibit occasional passive structure.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Am I prohibited from referring to an eminence grise, in favor of “power behind the throne” or “puppet master”? The French phrase for “gray eminence,” or “gray man,” is admittedly somewhat pretentious, but it’s also a rich metaphor — and if you don’t know what it means, after you look it up, your word-hoard is in turn enriched. Likewise, scientific terminology and topic-specific jargon can become tiresome, but it’s often appropriate in moderation.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I disagree with this rule as well. Better, I say, to break any of these rules you like, but only after you acknowledge that each has its justifications and if you remain alert, in your writing, to abuses of the English language they caution against. But “Orwell, or else” is a policy that smacks of rigidity.

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10 Responses to “Orwell’s Writing Rules Are Made to Be Broken”

  • Michael Rose

    George Orwell wrote 1984. He did not write Nineteen Eighty-Four. The error stands out so brilliantly in the opening sentence that the rest of the article lost all credibility. I kept wondering over and over: why would someone take such a bold liberty? Whatever “rules” of writing numbers were applied here in such a moot fashion? A title is a title is a title. We do not change it to suit our needs, moods or beliefs about what is proper and what is not.

    It is certainly fine to disagree with Mr. Orwell’s own rules of writing. Writing is fluid. GOOD writing disavows rigidity. A correction is due in this case. I would be upset if someone changed one of my own titles. And, no… there is no rule to apply here that makes this particular mistake acceptable. It is simply 1984, as the author intended.

    Thank you.

  • Kristina

    Great tips. Some writers try to sound more professional by using longer words or scientific phrases, but most of the time it just makes the piece more confusing. Keeping it simple works best.

  • Cecily

    I think the crucial thing that people often overlook is the first word of the essay’s title: “Politics”.

    If people remember that, and actually read the whole essay, they will see that Orwell makes valid points how language is manipulated to deceive and mislead. His six suggestions are to help people write plainly to avoid being misunderstood.

    The problem comes when people think these suggestions apply to all forms of writing, even fiction. You only have to skim Orwell’s own works to see that was not his intention.

    So I broadly agree with your caveats, Mark (though I suspect others may not).

  • Frank Elliott

    Rules no. 1 through 5 were instilled in me at my first reporting job with a major daily newspaper and have guided my writing ever since. There must have been a bunch of Orwell fans on the city desk. As for breaking these rules, it’s like anything else: Master the rules, and you earn the right to break them for a specific purpose.

    Lastly, I nominate my most-loathed cliche to the list of figures of speech that ought to be banned: “an assassin’s bullet.”

  • Cesar

    @Michael Rose:

    What in blazes are you talking about? The novel is known as both “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “1984”. The first edition published was known as Nineteen Eighty-Four, and there is extensive documentation on how Orwell decided upon this name, so if anything, he intended it to be titled this and not 1984. Still, I never heard of Orwell complaining about either usage.

    Talk about Orwellian…

  • Rob Kennedy

    These writing tips are for Journalism, not fiction or non-fiction writing. They are the industry standard journalists rules. Regardless of who said them.

  • opsimath

    Someone once said that rules for for the guidance of the wise and the observance of fools – or something of that sort. Orwell’s essay is a marvel of clarity of thought, but thought is, after all, only opinion, unless of course it is Fowler’s!

    I never agreed, for instance, with his dislike of ‘not un’; to my mind ther is a wealth of difference between an ‘attractive’ woman and a ‘not unattractive’ one.

    That prompts me to remember two other sayings – ‘rules are there to be broken’ – and ‘there is only one rule; you do what the Hell you like and take the consequences’.

    It’s nice to read your thoughts; please continue to share them with us.

    By the way, before I close, I think the original title for the dystopian masterpiece was to have been 1948 – or perhaps Nineteen-forty-eight!

    opsimath.

  • IsaacJ

    Not trying to be a wiseguy (I’m sure my site is littered with mistakes worse than this) just thought I’d point out a typo:

    2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    I think you meant, “2. Never USE a long word where a short one will do.”

  • Justin Hall

    I both agree and disagree with this first “Commandment.” Some metaphors and similes are used so often, they’ve become clichés. There are good things, though, about using familiar figures of speech; one is their strong ability to communicate. An example is, “Firelight playing on his face (walls, ceiling, ect.).” I’ve seen this in countless books, when “firelight” is mentioned, and so have many other readers, so whenever one reads “firelight playing,” understanding is instantaneous. But often, familiarity has deadened our senses to these metaphors, so we read through them without imagination. Something else to think about: description is important to the fictive world (or non-fictive) being created, and so when a writer is to describe a scene (firelight), he must choose his words carefully. There is not room enough to describe every detail, so when description is necessary, he should give the reader a fresh perspective—rather than an old, familiar metaphor.

    3. As for “omitting” words, I think maximizing word economy is important for clear communication. Usually, I try to communicate with as little words possible—wordy sentences do not communicate well.

  • Azahara

    If you look at the British first edition cover, you’ll see that the title was both 1984 and nineteen eighty-four (no capital letters), with the latter superimposed on the former.

    As for the rules, most fiction writers break them all the time. I’d say that in professional contexts (business, journalism, etc.) it’s better to adhere to them, for the sake of clarity.

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