Orwell’s rules of language

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of George Orwell (1903-1950), a British writer most famous for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.

Orwell wasn’t just a novelist, however – he wrote hundreds of essays, articles and studies during his lifetime, in addition to the six novels he penned. His focus in writing was often on his ardent passion against totalitarianism and social injustices, and part of this focus involved clarity of language – that is to say, transmitting your message in as few words as is necessary, so that it can be understood by as many people as possible. He coined several neologisms (‘new words’) in his writings, many of which are still in use today, such as “Big Brother” – and in fact, we sometimes even use the term “Orwellian” to describe something as harmful to a free society.

Even though Orwell’s love for the clarity of language was well-founded, Nineteen Eighty Four sees the totalitarian government adopt a new, obfuscating form of language – Newspeak – which does away with all synonyms (words that mean the same as another word) and antonyms (words that mean the opposite) to create a vocabulary of simple dichotomies – good and ungood, pleasure and pain, etc..

The effect of this Newspeak is that it forcefully removes from the English language all ideas of freedom and rebellion against the state. If you can’t say something, it makes it a lot harder to think it – which brings the government one step closer towards controlling the thoughts of its populace, thus demonstrating the total dominance of the ruling regime.

Whilst Orwell of course never condones Newspeak in reality (though it was a brilliantly effective literary device), he also was never fond of the opposite extreme. In one of his most prominent essays – Politics and the English Language, he draws up six rules of good writing, which we nowadays perhaps might deem as common sense:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word when a short word will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Use the active rather than passive voice.
  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.

It’s fair to say that Orwell will mostly be remembered for the political statements made through his writing, but it is slightly less known just how much of an effect he had on the English language itself!

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