Avoiding the Outright Barbarous

In an essay published in 1946 the English novelist and essayist George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950) provided a helpful set of rules for writers.

  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.

My favourite of these is the sixth because it illuminates an important point: some of the worst writing is the result of an excessive deference to rules.

Or, worse, to what the writer believes to be rules.

When I taught writing to rooms full of civil servants my soul would seep out of my shoes when I heard the words, ‘Well, my teacher always said…’

People had teachers who said one should never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’. They had teachers who would spit at the sight of a split infinitive. They had even been taught that bulleted lists:

  • should always be introduced with a colon;
  • should finish each row with a semi-colon;
  • that the final bullet should be introduced by ‘and’; and
  • conclude with a full stop.

That’s a good way to do it in many cases but can be overkill in lists of:

  • things
  • colours
  • places
  • names

Rules are not laws. They are often little more than preferences, or even prejudices, based on a particularly stuffy kind of (literally) old school thinking.

If you are not a confident writer they can be helpful, like familiar shapes in the fog, but someone who is really comfortable with words will know without hesitation when to break them. It will be a conscious decision — one the writer can defend.

As Orwell suggests the best reason to break a supposed rule is because to adhere to it would make your writing ugly or, worse, distort its meaning.

Clarity matters more then elegance which matters more than pounding English into a Latin shaped box.

You can read ‘Politics and the English Language’ in various printed editions or online here.