I sit alone at the kitchen table, pressing my palms against my eye sockets and muttering curse words.
I’m working on a file called thesis_stuff.doc and, as its name indicates, it is a jumble of incomplete ideas, arbitrary categories, and facetious footnotes that no one else will ever read.
“Just put your ideas down in plain English,” says a ghostly voice. “Have you read my essay on politics and the English language?”
I look up to see a phantom with kind eyes and a neat mustache. Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, is sitting across from me.
“How long is it?” I ask, eyeing the clock above his head. He raises an eyebrow.
“Alright, alright,” I say, bringing up an electronic copy. “But I’m going to share some of the passages that stand out to me. I haven’t updated my blog in several days.”
“Blog?…” says Orwell, squinting an eye.
“Yeah, one of the few things you didn’t predict,” I laughed.
Orwell rose from the table and handed me a typewritten note.
“That’s fine, but make sure to include these general rules. They will help you in most cases,” he said.
- 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.
Ask yourself at least four questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Now, ask yourself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
I look up to see that Orwell, like the last specter that visited me, has vanished before I was finished with him. Luckily, his words remain.
EXCERPTS FROM “POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE”
By: George Orwell
As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.
…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say ‘In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that’ than to say ‘I think.’
The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible […] Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers […] Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.