Friday, September 7, 2012

Orwellian syntax

he title of this post is a little iffy, but I think it works in a couple of ways. First, the content here is by George Orwell, therefore is by definition Orwellian, right? Secondly, his proposed overhaul of the English language (which we'll get to as soon as I'm done justifying and rationalising) is a bit on the totalitarian side, ergo, Orwellian. And uh, Thirdly... thirdly... oh yes, his criticism of the current state of prose essentially compares it to the sort of meaningless catchphrases found in 1984, where words cease to have any relation to their meaning and generally cause the downfall of civilisation as we know it.

That pretty much sums it up, actually, but a little context: I've just read George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language. The essay alternates between lambasting several samples of [truly lousy] writing and prescribing a few guidelines to avoid further transgressions. It was written in 1946, so we can only imagine how pained Orwell would be to see the current state of the written word (probably including my own. erk.). I bet he and Hemingway would've gotten along in some ways...

And now, for my own reference and for yours, George Orwell's basic rules for passable writing:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Taken from the essay Politics and the English Language, 1946, page 156 of George Orwell, A Collection of Essays, Harcourt Brace, 1981. 

1 comment:

  1. I believe you should never say never. Actually, I think there's much wisdom in his rules, but as is often the case, his strict rules would make for narrow language. Who wants to hear the short word of f--- repeated over and over? Better to have long words, varied words that enrich the language. The same is true for his (v). What's important is to try to adapt your vocabulary to your audience so they don't feel you're putting on airs if they don't understand many of your bigger words... unless the bigger words can bombast and delight or tickle their fancy (smile)or gently extend the richness of their vocabulary. I like to learn a foreign word from a foreigner to enrich my vocabulary... and form a bond with them.