Orwell's words are still relevant

September 04, 2009|By LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

What does the name George Orwell mean to you?

Perhaps you remember that he was an author. Maybe you can recall reading "Animal Farm," a satirical novel he wrote in 1945 or "Nineteen Eighty-Four," a novel he wrote in 1949 as an attack on political dictatorship.

What you might not know is that he also wrote literary criticism, essays and poetry. Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" has been called the best essay in English on the social necessity of responsible writing. It is often used to challenge college-bound students to think about the words they select in conveying a message.

Sometimes teachers will direct students to the end of the essay for Orwell's list of rules for good writing. Then students might be asked to find examples of published writing or advertisements that break one or some of Orwell's rules.


After reading the rules, it seems that this assignment would be relatively easy.

Could you find examples of these? If so, how would you rewrite/adjust/polish that writing?

Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Chances are, if you've seen it numerous times, others have, too. A phrase often repeated loses its effectiveness. For example, how often do you want to read or hear "keep up with the Joneses," "sleep like a log" or "cast the first stone"?

Try to craft your own expressions rather than attempt to use those written by others.

Orwell: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Why use "accommodate" when "allow" will work just fine? Should you "terminate" your sentence or just "end" it?

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

If I were Orwell, I'd change this rule to "If it is possible to cut a word, cut it." (I'm just following his directions ....)

Orwell: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

It's always best to have the subject "act out" the action.

Rather than writing "The boy was licked by the dog," it's better to write, "The dog licked the boy."

Orwell: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Pourquoi? If the reader doesn't get your message, you have no message.

(By the way, pourquoi means "why" in French.)

Orwell: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary (fourth edition), the word barbarous means characterized by substandard usages in speaking or writing; characteristic of barbarians; primitive or lacking in civilization; uncultured, crude, coarse, rough, cruel, brutal.

I don't think any of us would like our work to be described in those terms. Perhaps we should take Orwell's advice to heart.

Oh, I think I might have to rewrite that last sentence.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

The Herald-Mail Articles