George Orwell: really not all that

George Orwell
“Write only in green ink. Apply BLOCK CAPITALS liberally. The word ‘sheeple’ is your friend”

Oh I know. I am contractually obliged, as a journalist, to say that George Orwell was the greatest genius ever to have lived, and – more importantly – how he’d definitely agree with me on whatever my pet topic of the day is.

Anyway. He clearly was one of Britain’s greatest ever writers; an extraordinary novelist and journalist, a fierce and clear voice warning against totalitarianism, and prophetic, in a way. But I get a bit annoyed when he gets quoted as an authority on how to write – most especially, when the “laws” from his essay “Politics and the English Language” get bandied about as THIS IS HOW YOU DO WRITING, GUYS.

For the record: it’s not. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority. But even an idiot like me can see that his rules make no sense.

The Economist is at it today, pointing us at “The world’s worst sentence” from a book called Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski. The sentence, or part of it, is “Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis”. Apparently it then has a semicolon and burbles on for another 32 words. We can all agree that it is an awful, awful sentence, “not just a mixed metaphor [but also] meaningless and pretentious at the same time”, as The Economist rightly says. I count four or five conflicting metaphors in there.

But then it says that Mirowski or his editors should have read Orwell’s six laws, which are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
2. Never use 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 when 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; and finally
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous

As always, Language Log has done this better than I ever could, and I am shamelessly cribbing off them, so feel free to go straight to the source. But let’s have a look at this.

One: never use a figure of speech which “you are used to seeing in print” is a bit weird. For example, you could make the case that “figure of speech” is a figure of speech, since the things it refers to are not literal figures, ie physical shapes or written symbols, but metaphorical ones. And you’ve definitely seen it in print lots and lots. And there’s nothing wrong with it. “Don’t resort to cliché” is what he means, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying.

Two: Language Log nails the “Never use a long word” and the “Never use a foreign phrase” one neatly by pointing out that “when a shorter one will do” or “an everyday English equivalent” are entirely subjective terms. In the very same essay, they point out, Orwell talks of “scrupulous writers”. Could he have said “careful”, Language Log wonders: “Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?” Similarly, foreign and technical words have subtly different meanings to the English equivalents: there are no true synonyms. “Don’t show off by using needlessly fancy language”, again, is so obvious and unhelpful that it doesn’t need saying; it’s little better than saying “write well”.

Three: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” should, by its own rule, be “If it is possible to cut a word, cut it.” Or even “Cut words where possible.” Is that better?

Four: “Never use the passive” is complete nonsense and Orwell uses it regularly himself because there is nothing wrong with it.

Five we’ve dealt with; see two.

Six: So what you’re saying, Mr Orwell, is that applying rigid rules to writing is unhelpful and silly? At last we agree.

All Orwell needs to say is that we should take care over writing, and that cliché and needlessly showy language are worth avoiding. That’s great, if largely empty (“Be better at the things you do” is rarely helpful advice). But the Six Commandments on their tablets of stone are all ridiculous, and if you go through your prose sternly applying them – or worse, if your editor does – then it is very unlikely to make it any better.

Orwell was still a great writer, and I am, to put it kindly, not. But in this particular instance he was talking out of his bottom. That is a metaphor which I have seen in print dozens of times, but is perfectly apt here.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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