What George Orwell can still teach us about writing and readability

George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language in 1946. Published in Horizon magazine and running to 5,405 words, it takes on the decline in the use of language. “Modern English, especially written English,” Orwell wrote, “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” Some of the themes the essay explores – most obviously, the power of language “designed to make lies sound truthful” – would feature again in Orwell’s writing, including 1984, published three years later.

Politics and the English Language is not to everybody’s tastes – the Guardian’s Steven Poole described it as “wildly overrated” and accused Orwell of “linguistic xenophobia” – but to many, and like 1984, it remains powerful. The Economist, for one, cites it in the introduction to its well-regarded style guide.

In the course of his essay, Orwell offers not one but three numbered lists. These rules of writing both provide guidance that remains valuable over half a century on and evidence that the numbered list pre-dates BuzzFeed by 60 years, at least.

Here, for example, is his style checklist “that one can rely on when instinct fails”:

“(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.”

Elsewhere in his essay, Orwell suggests that:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

1. What am I trying to say?

2. What words will express it?

3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

Not quite satisfied, Orwell suggests that the scrupulous writer will probably ask himself two more questions:

“1. Could I put it more shortly?

2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

Whether writing for print or writing for the web, you could do far worse than start with Orwell.

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News


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