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Sunday, 11 January 2009

Politics And The English Language

Forest Wisdom quoted recently this observation by George Orwell: To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle. This got me thinking about Orwell, and how he was one of the literary and political heroes of my youth. I think I read most of his books in my mid to late teens - probably at breakneck pace, as was my habit back then! Nowadays I read a lot more slowly, sometimes turning back to read pages over and over.

Orwell certainly took it upon himself to see what was in front of his own nose, and to write about it as sincerely and honestly as he could in prose that was both workmanlike and unpretentious. He described with a clear eye the exploitation of mineworkers and economic deprivation in Northern England in The Road To Wigan Pier, the life of tramps in Down And Out In Paris And London, the Spanish Civil War in Homage To Catalonia, post-Russian Revolution Communism in Animal Farm and totalitarianism in 1984.

An absolutely indispensable work of Orwell's for all aspiring writers (indeed for all writers) is his essay Politics And The English Language. In it he lists the following 6 rules:

  • 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.
Good advice, and well worth keeping at the back of our minds, I think...


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Good advice, indeed. While each and every one of these rules can sometimes be broken to the betterment of a piece—they are certainly the measuring stick for deciding whether or not to color (write) outside the lines.

I've never read much of Orwell—but between you and Forest Wisdom, I'm about convinced I'll have to correct that oversight.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Dominic has pointed this out to me many times solitary walker. I hope it has had some impressions on my writing these days - I am afraid I find it all to easy to wax lyrical. Can't imagine Orwell ever doing that - you have only to look at his photograph to see his down-to-earthness!

The Solitary Walker said...

Weaver, I think your prose is a model of clarity and restraint!

Yes indeed, Grizzled... Rules are made to be broken..!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Oh dear, I confess I do have a penchant for long words ... In conversation and in writing, if I can use five adjectives instead of one, I will!

The Solitary Walker said...

What a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious comment, Raph!

Rachel Fox said...

What a lot of 'nevers'. I think I'd have to add more...'never say never'...

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it is a bit prescriptive, isn't it?

Nevertheless, I think in general it's pretty sound advice. If all would-be published authors followed it, it would make the life of the publisher's editor a hell of a lot easier.

And, as I said, rules are made to be broken.

Pam said...

A long time ago, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to work as a radio copywriter. We always had to fit copy into time frames ie 25 seconds, having to be quite ruthless with words. I lived at home in those days and my Dad is a rambler, with a lot of ums and ers thrown in for good measure.Used to drive me crazy - was mentally crossing out words and cutting the story down to half the time.

forest wisdom said...

Well, I see I am a little late to the comment party this time. Orwell's "prescriptions" sound rather similar to the way Hemingway wrote. Interesting that their lives and careers were contemporary.

I am an admirer of this stark, spare, fly-on-the-wall-making-observations even if it is not the style I write in personally. I wonder what Orwell and Hemingway would have made (or perhaps did make in their day) of the intensely dense prose of another contemporary, William Faulkner.

All great writers though. So while I think Orwell gives generally good advice here, I sort of agree with Rachel, and her "never say never...."

My first writing teacher said to me that you have to know the rules before you can successfully break them and it remain good writing. I think that's true.

Thought provoking stuff as usual, SW. :)

Anonymous said...

After watching an interview with Christopher Hitchens discussing his "literary hero" Orwell, I am returning to Orwell. There is much that I haven't read but I will begin with "Keep the Aspidistra Flying". Funnily whilst I had come to this decision to re-visit Orwell I found a copy of Hitchen's book "Orwell's Victory" in a secondhand bookshop. I couldn't follow much of it because I need to read much more of Orwell's writings.


The Solitary Walker said...

Forest, thanks for your comment, as always!

I don't think it was Orwell's intention necessarily to align himself with those writers like Hemingway with pared-down, non-adjectival, no-nonsense styles in opposition to the denser, more philosphical, more convoluted writers like Faulkner.

In his essay Orwell was simply coming out against what he calls the "decadence" of language - just bad writing per se, whether it be meaningless political language, worn-out phrases, clichés, euphemisms, vagueness, bombast, pretentiousness, an inflated style... I'm sure we could probably all agree that these are to be avoided. None of these to be found in either Hemingway OR Faulkner!

The Solitary Walker said...

And indeed thanks to everyone for their comments!

Pam, my father just the same! He understood monologue - but hadn't heard of conversation. 5 minute stories were spun out for an hour. If you interrupted you were dead meat.

I think copywriting, compiling abstracts, reviewing etc - all these tasks where you're working under time and space restriction - are invaluable training. It's not surprising that Orwell did a lot of journalism.

forest wisdom said...

Well said. Yes, I completely agree!

The Solitary Walker said...

Bella - though I can't agree with Hitchens' recent neo-conservative stance on many issues, his take on Orwell is absolutely spot-on.

'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' - good choice! You just have to accept that this book - and books like 'A Clergyman's Daughter' - have very dated aspects to them.

But, as Hitchens himself intimates, Orwell, though not a 'timeless writer of genius', was nevertheless a great and honest writer, a social and political observer, a journalist of integrity, and an exposer of the hypocritical, the exploitative and the fascistic in all their guises.

Dominic Rivron said...

I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon here and suggest that it is often said that these rules are de rigeur and that unpretentious prose almost invariably obeys these rules most of the time :)

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent advice for writers.

Earlier in my life I read several of George Orwell's books, and I'm thinking to reread them.

Raph Neckmann suggested your blog for this article.