To get you in the mood for tomorrow’s Book of the Week, here are the author’s six rules for clear writing from the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.
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 readers of George Orwell’s most well-known work, 1984, will be aware, Orwell was interested in the way that language can be manipulated for political ends. In 1984 the English language has been altered to fit the prevailing ideology. Clear, expressive, cliché-free writing is an important bulwark against despotism, and this is what his rules are supposed to aid (though he warns ‘one could follow all of them and still write bad English’). They are quite exacting rules, I think, and the kind that make you doubt your own writing: I’m wondering, for example whether the expression ‘bulwark against despotism’, that I used last sentence, might not break the very first rule. Have I picked up the phrase ‘bulwark against despotism’ from some newspaper article I read somewhere? What exactly is a ‘bulwark’? When I wrote the phrase, did I have a very clear idea of what a bulwark really is? I might be tempted to try to reformulate the sentence entirely, perhaps as ‘Clear, expressive, cliché-free writing can help us to see the world as it is, which in turn can help us to define and thus defend our liberty’.
I’m still not happy with that, but it’s better than my original sentence. Orwell’s rules were designed to improve a kind of writing that was prevalent in his day, and habits have certainly changed a great deal since, but they still hold true. Today’s challenge puts them to the test…
Scrutinise a newspaper for phrases that break Orwell’s rules and suggest a phrase to show what the writer might really mean.