Oh Well, Orwell’s 6 Rules

Orwell.jpgpic courtesy anon

Eventually it seems everyone has to write something about Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (Certainly it should be read by everybody who writes anything for others to read) although strangely I haven’t found too many people working in Marketing and Communications who keep its advice on the wall in front of their desk.Orwell on the wall.jpg That’s probably because we spend our working life trying very hard to forget if not altogether avoid them. We are much more comfortable with “Sushi” than with cold, wet, dead fish. If you cant read the writing on my wall, here are the key guidelines:

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

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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.

To forestall any argument I will say that such a list is not helpful here (unlike the blogosphere where generally Orwell’s rules are widely ignored and lists seem the ‘top tip’ to get readers…). Orwell himself conceded that he had broken the rules in his writing and indeed in the essay itself. I don’t believe that Orwell’s ambit extends to ALL writing and that his most important assertion is how freedom to use sloppy language allows sloppy thinking. “Vagueness and sheer incompetence” is as much to do with how people are ‘sold’ things from ideas and opinions to soap-powder as they are a path to brutal ideology.

Orwell’s essay is of course the first and most famous of a lot of perspectives on the whole issue of clarity and meaning:

Francis Wheen – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World
The Plain English Campaign – Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979
Don Watson –
Gobbledygook: How Cliches, Sludge and Management-speak Are Strangling Our Public Language

And so on.

Whatever the reasons behind it, if you or someone you are communicating to end up saying: “Yes but what does that ACTUALLY MEAN”? or more worryingly: “HOW did I end up buying THIS”? you can be fairly sure that most if not all of Orwell’s 6 Rules have been broken.


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