- 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.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (Horizon, 1946)
These rules, unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing, are about the use of language rather than the construction of stories.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has read his work that Orwell thought the corruption of language corrupted society. He was particularly critical of how it allows us to use euphemisms and neologisms to accept and promote facts and beliefs we would otherwise find objectionable.
This is an important reminds to writers that our choice of words matter. Like any technology, language requires skill from those who would wield it as well as the wisdom to use it well. We see this in recent debates about framing science to give it political effect, and the ever-controversial use of the word ‘genocide’ – a neologism coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar and Orwell’s contemporary.
- Your writing exercise for today: a short story about how a misplaced comma brings about the end of civilization. Just keep the pandas out of it.