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George Orwell on Clarity in Language

 

In "Politics and the English Language" (1946) George Orwell provides six rules for writers:

  • 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 voice 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.

His recommendations are as true today as they were over six decades ago. Below is the full text of his influential essay.

 

Politics and the English Language

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language so the argument runs must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

 

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Politics and the English Language

  Introduction

  Examples of poor language

  The worst offenders

  A move away from concreteness

  The debasement of language

  Insincere language and its uses

  The invasion of ready-made phrases

  The defence of the English language

  Simplifying English

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