Orwell’s Writing Rules Are Made to Be Broken
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.