George Orwell on bad English

An article I was reading in the New Yorker on past Presidents’ Inaugural speeches referenced an essay by George Orwell called “Politics and the English Language”, in which he discusses one variety of bad writing.

You know when criticism is good when you recognise yourself in the examples being criticised. Call it a knack for knowing your own failings. But the article itself is rather long; I’d like to share some of the better quotes.

From the end of the essay, the origin of some oft-heard advice:

(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.

Some argue that these rules lead to overly simplified writing, but I’d say first that only people that understand the rules are allowed to break them. A description of one who does not understand these rules:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

I’m certainly not one to talk. It’s far too easy to bang out a few (too many) words and be happy that someone, somewhere might be reading them. Or use those words as a crutch to remember some vaguely related point.

His translation of Ecclesiastes to “modern English” is brilliant. From:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.


Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

I sure can see some of my own writing echoed in that example. It’s a great example, because the translation does sound lucid and intelligent.

And finally:

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing, is that it is easy.

George, you are damn right.