Monday, July 12, 2004

Orwell on Good Writing

George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (1946) is an essay all should read. As timely now as it was sixty years ago, it is available in several anthologies and on-line here. Orwell lays down the following rules for good writing.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never us 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. (A Collection of Essays, Harvest, 1981, p. 170)

On balance, this is excellent advice. Orwell's formulation of these rules, however, is excessively schoolmarmish, so much so that he himself cannot abide by them. Take (3) for example. It's a rule violated by its own formulation. Had Orwell followed his own advice, he would have deleted 'always.' Or consider this sentence near the beginning of his essay: "Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse." (p. 156) Surely, 'inevitably' is redundant. Or else 'must' is redundant. The sentence as Orwell wrote it, however, is not a bad sentence. My point is that his rules are too restrictive.

Now look at (5). This rule contradicts what he himself says on the preceding page. There (p. 169) he asks what his defence of the English language does not imply. One of the things it does not imply is "in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one...." This obviously contradicts rule (5).

At the root of the problem is the tendency most of have to reach for such universal quantifiers as 'all,' 'every,' 'no' and 'never' when strict accuracy demands something less ringing. If the great Orwell can fall into the trap, then we lesser mortals need to be especially careful. Good writing cannot be reduced to the application of rules. Rules are at best guidelines.

These quibbles aside, this essay is required reading.