The rules can bend around one’s spirit just as one’s spirit can bend around the rules.
George Orwell is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His books 1984 and Animal Farm are classics that have been read by more people than any other two books by any given author of his time.
In addition to these classics he wrote many other books, articles and essays. One of these essays is titled Politics And The English Language, in which he discusses the role vague language plays in manipulating public opinion. He argues against vagueness and in favor of clear and straightforward forms of expression that convey their message unambiguously.
He also lays out six rules for writers.
- 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 outright barbarous.
Ok, so let’s play around with these rules a little.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. In other words, be willing to redesign the square.
Never use a long word where a short one will do. Ok.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out i.e. If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active. Rightly so, as I found out at school one day, when an English literature teacher told me that I was expected to apply grammar rules without question. Confused, I asked him, by whom am I expected to do this, sir? He said, by me, of course, and by the entire English Literature staff, dear boy! My reply was immediate: Then wouldn’t it have been more grammatically appropriate for you to have said that you and the entire English Literature staff expect me to apply grammar rules without question, sir? He looked at me with anger and told me that with this kind of attitude I would surely fail the class. I told him he would surely fail me.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. In other words, when reporting on an object of the day, for example, stock markets, one may say that ‘stock indices today broke the support levels and reached new lows, sending clear signals to investors of an impending and prolonged bear market’ – I’m sorry, let me rephrase that. ‘The markets shot straight through the floor and crashed, making millions of people panic, thinking they’ll go bankrupt in a few years, and die hungry and alone.’
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Ok, but how about wrong? Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright wrong. Not quite the same as barbarous, true, but it’s shorter, simpler, common, and easier to understand. Just like the previous rules specify. Unless, of course, this is nothing other than the exception to the rule, demonstrated by example. Now that’s what I call genius.
This brings us to the end our game. To be fair, I’ve stretched the rules to the point of mocking them. I did it for a reason: to show how great Orwell’s rules are and how well they work, even when applied onto themselves. Especially when applied onto themselves. A rule that survives its own onslaught is a pretty solid way to go about things.
And then, of course, there’s humor. Everyone prefers a tickle to a dry lecture. No one wants to hear how they ought to use simple, non-jargon, short words, or that the only exception to the rule is when the end product is barbarous. But take the mickey by making examples out of examples and presto, people remember a thing or two about them. When to apply them straight up and when to adapt them to fit the purpose.
In other words, rules are good, but they’re not everything, not all the time, at least not in writing. Writers are better off using the words they deem most appropriate at any given moment, given the context, adapting the spirit of the times to the spirit in their heart. They can write whatever they want in the way they want it and revisit and edit and adjust it accordingly, depending on the audience they wish to address. It’s a matter of delivering their inner voice. Anything else would be wrong, inappropriate, and, dare I say, disingenuous, if not utterly and completely barbarous.