On Being a “Writer” (part 11: Breaking The Rules with Orwell)

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled, “Politics and the English Language,” outlining how politics have corrupted language. I believe strongly that politics–in the broader sense than strictly governance–have served to dilute language, shrouding meaning in insipid semantics (aka those damned excuses I discussed previously).

For instance, I sometimes have arguments with my parents. We can spend hours circumnavigating the actual issue by getting caught up in how things are expressed instead of actually getting down to what needs to be discussed. We fool ourselves into thinking we are protecting the other by being indirect, where we are really only trying to protect ourselves from being brave, standing straight, and speaking clearly.

Orwell developed 6 rules:

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

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

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

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

The Johnson blog run by The Economist published a piece on this back in 2013. My favorite part posed revolves around the dogmatic nature absolutes. Almost poignantly put, the piece points out that breaking the rules taps into a human frailty shared by writers or, simply put, people. This is pithy. I like that. That’s what I meant when I referenced certain arguments I have with my parents. We are often afraid of ourselves and self-sabotage in semantics.

Where The Economist seeks to “liberate” these rules by reframing them sans absolutes, I rather like them how they originally are. I think there is a humor here that renders the rules free already. That last rule is everything. You can–and should–break the rules, but do so avec intention.


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