Monday, August 17, 2009

An Essay by George Orwell

I stumbled across an 1946 essay by George Orwell I thought people might find interesting. The essay is about the poor use of language in writing, with examples of (very) bad writing and suggested rules for what should be avoided. The essay is broken across two web-pages. Here is a link for the first page, and for the second page.

I may comment on this essay later, but for now I thought I would point it out so those interested could read it at their leisure.


  1. Here's one point in the article that impressed me:

    "When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia."

    How many times just in the last weeks have we seen politicians and pundits use unclear and/or inflammatory language to disguise their faulty logic?

    I also agree that pretentiousness is the enemy of good writing. I've seen writing that's overloaded with unnecessary phrases and overly elevated vocabulary - it hinders comprehension rather than aiding it.

    However, here's something that I disagree with:

    "Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers."

    I can't speak for political or sociological writers, but as a scientific writer, many of these "foreign" words aid comprehension. In science writing, you often have to fit many complex ideas into one single sentence. Sometimes using a single complex word can eliminate the need for additional modifying phrases which make the sentence more difficult to understand. "Ameliorate" and "abrogate" are two of my favorites.

    In general, I also think that the incorporation of foreign words into English is a good thing, not a bad one. One of the best things about the English language is its complexity - some words might have twenty or more synonyms, all with different shades of meaning. Much of that comes from the constant assimilation of words and concepts from other cultures. It makes English a richer and more precise medium for expression.

    But his "rules" at the end are an excellent guideline for new 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 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.

    (The last, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous," I left out because I thought the meaning was unclear :)

  2. Nicole, I think your comment qualifies as a blog post in its own right.

    I agree with your comments about pundits and such using unclear and inflammatory language to hide the weakness of their logic. I will break a little from your point about scientific writing, however.

    To be precise, there is a distinction between articles by scientist for the general public and those intended solely for other scientist in the same field. When writing for people in highly specialized fields, jagon and hyper-technical terms are understood and considered no only acceptable, but expected. When writing for general consumption these same terms are inappropriate.

    Consider the simplest such term, "Theory", which has two entirely different meanings between the way it is used in science versus how the general populace interperts the word. In science a theory is about as close to an accepted fact as you are likely to get, but to the general public it represents a random guess which might well be wrong. At least, that's my theory. :)

    Foreign or obscure words are good when either they are well known, or the context of the sentence or surrounding sentences makes clear their meaning. If an obscure or foreign word makes the average reader in the intended audience stumble over the intent of the sentence, then the word should be avoided.

    I agree with the assessment of his rules. With regards to the "barbarous" rule, I think he means that a short, clear sentence that carries repugnant implications should not be favored over less clear sentences that lack those overtones. For example, consider saying to someone "Would you like to be euthanized?" versus "Do you have a living will?” Both deal with end of life, but the first sentence is barbarous, while the second is a (hopefully) polite inquiry about the person’s desired treatments.