I was reminded of George Orwell’s rules for writing this weekend while reading an article about the German architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). In her article, “New guides to Bath: Society and scene in Northanger Abbey”, Judy Stove-Wilson wrote that
Pevsner noted the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables. He regarded this as symptomatic of ‘understatement, the aversion against fuss, the distrust of rhetoric’ (Pevsner, The Englishness of English art, 1956, p. 13).
The reason I was reading this article, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is because my local Jane Austen group is currently discussing Northanger Abbey. Pevsner wrote in 1968 an oft-quoted article on Austen, “The architectural setting of Jane Austen’s novels”. He, keenly interested in architecture, was critical of Austen’s minimal descriptions of buildings in her novels, though he was impressed with her knowledge of and use of Bath in her novels – and of course much of Northanger Abbey is set in Bath.
But, I’m digressing. My inspiration for this post is his comment on “the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables”. It made me chuckle given the German language’s predilection for multisyllabic words. It also reminded me of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English language” and his 6 rules:
- 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.
No. 2, of course, is the one I was remembering.
However, on returning to the essay to check Orwell’s actual rules, I realised that the whole essay is worth reading again, because in our world of “alternative facts” Orwell’s words on the relationship between politics and language are as relevant today as when he wrote them 70 years ago. He writes that, paradoxically, our language
becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
This is reversible, he believes, and reversing it is critical because good writing enables clear thinking, and the ability “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”. I should clarify, if you don’t already know, that his target is factual, and particularly “political writing”, not “the literary use of language” by which, presumably, he means creative or fictional writing.
Later in the essay he makes very clear why he is writing it, and you’ll quickly see why I’m sharing it now:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification”. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”.
Hmm … I bet everyone reading this can think of their own contemporary examples. Please share them if you like!
I won’t write more on the essay, as my main aim was simply to share its continuing relevance. I’ll just leave you with a sentence from his last paragraph:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
That George Orwell. He really was something.
“Politics and the English language” 1946