C&B Notes

Orwell’s Rules for Writing

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell shared a set of six rules for writing:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

* * * * *

Geoffrey Pullum, Mr. Liberman’s stablemate at Language Log, goes so far as to dismiss Orwell’s essay as “dishonest.” But was Orwell aiming to mislead when he told writers never to use the passive?  No.  He merely failed to hold himself to this rule at all times.  Orwell accommodated poetic license in his sixth rule: “Break any of these rules rather than say something outright barbarous.”  A hint of flexibility.  Yet he should have gone a little further.

Indeed, here are his rules liberated from those dogmatic “nevers” and the “always”:

(i) Avoid using metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Think of fresh ones wherever you can.

(ii) Prefer short words to long ones.

(iii) Try cutting a lot of your word-count, especially those words that add little extra meaning.

(iv) Don’t over-use the passive voice. And whether passive or active, be clear who did what to whom.

(v) Prefer everyday English to foreign, scientific or jargon words.

And then here’s revised rule (vi), to be borne in mind by the language pundit.

(vi) Good writing is no place for the tyrant.  Never say “never” and always avoid “always,” or at the least handle them with care.  Overusing such words is an invitation for critics to hold you to your own impossible standard.

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