Chiding Orwell

My co-blogger sent me a link to the “Mind Your Language” blog at the Guardian in the UK, and particularly to a piece inviting readers to vote for their favorite (that is, least favorite) political campaign cliche:

Mind Your Language

The MYL bloggers are squarely in Orwell’s corner, to use an overly familiar metaphor of which Orwell would not approve. Some who comment on the post about cliche’s aren’t. (My co-blogger and I began to explore the ways in which Orwell’s analysis, in his famous essay, may be insufficient: see the link to the paper, “Teaching George Orwell in Karl Rove’s World” at left.)

The MYL bloggers cite Orwell’s famous list of advice to writers, and I’ll copy the list from their site and then quibble with Orwell gently, even as I continue to pay homage to his indelible essay:

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

[Especially good advice for poets and fiction writers, who are in the business of inventing new comparisons, but for essay-writers, something like “a day late and a dollar short” may achieve a desired effect fine.]

• Never use a long word where a short one will do.

[Lovers of Latinate roots may recoil from this one, and short isn’t necessarily better, as Orwell himself seems to have decided when he used “barbarous” (see below).]

• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

[Not bad advice, but some essay-writers may want to keep the word to maintain a rhythm in the sentence. And notice that Orwell could have cut “out” twice, above.]

• Never use the passive where you can use the active.

[Good advice, especially if the passive is hiding agency (responsibility). At the same time, “never” is a bit Puritanical. “We were rained on” is fine, no worse than “The clouds rained on us.”]

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

[Well, I think “milieu” and “schadenfreude” are useful and precise, and what if the scientific word is exactly what you mean? And one person’s jargon may be another person’s precision: much depends on the audience to whom you’re writing.]

• Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

[Good of Orwell to put in this safety-valve, which may be a worn-out metaphor. However, the word “barbarous” here has always bothered me, partly, I think, because I never knew exactly what Orwell meant by it in this context. I suspect (but cannot prove) that he had something like “good taste” in mind, but writers who think in terms of good taste are sometimes more likely to use Latinate words or not cut their prose as much as they could.]

Nonetheless, it’s way past 1984, and I’m still trying to mind my language, thanks in part to Eric Blair.


One Response to “Chiding Orwell”

  1. Wild Bill Says:

    Enjoyed and agreed with your retorts to Orwell’s sixfold path.

    I raise a slightly different matter. Why is that list of six rules so often preferred to Orwell’s six questions elsewhere in the same essay?

    “… A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

    1. What am I trying to say?
    2. What words will express it?
    3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
    4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

    And he will probably ask himself two more:

    1. Could I put it more shortly?
    2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

    I greatly prefer the six questions to the six rules.

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