George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose

orwell writing rules

Image via Creative Commons

Most everyone who knows the work of George Orwell knows his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (published here), in which he rails against careless, confusing, and unclear prose. “Our civilization is decadent,” he argues, “and our language… must inevitably share in the general collapse.” The examples Orwell quotes are all guilty in various ways of “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.”

Ultimately, Orwell claims, bad writing results from corrupt thinking, and often attempts to make palatable corrupt acts: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” His examples of colonialism, forced deportations, and bombing campaigns find ready analogues in our own time. Pay attention to how the next article, interview, or book you read uses language “favorable to political conformity” to soften terrible things.

Orwell’s analysis identifies several culprits that obscure meaning and lead to whole paragraphs of bombastic, empty prose:

Dying metaphors: essentially clichés, which “have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

Operators or verbal false limbs: these are the wordy, awkward constructions in place of a single, simple word. Some examples he gives include “exhibit a tendency to,” “serve the purpose of,” “play a leading part in,” “have the effect of.” (One particular peeve of mine when I taught English composition was the phrase “due to the fact that” for the far simpler “because.”)

Pretentious diction: Orwell identifies a number of words he says “are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” He also includes in this category “jargon peculiar to Marxist writing” (“petty bourgeois,” “lackey,” “flunkey,” “hyena”).

Meaningless words: Abstractions, such as “romantic,” “plastic,” “values,” “human,” “sentimental,” etc. used “in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.” Orwell also damns such political buzzwords as “democracy,” “socialism,” “freedom,” “patriotic,” “justice,” and “fascism,” since they each have “several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”

Most readers of Orwell’s essay inevitably point out that Orwell himself has committed some of the faults he finds in others, but will also, with some introspection, find those same faults in their own writing. Anyone who writes in an institutional context—be it academia, journalism, or the corporate world—acquires all sorts of bad habits that must be broken with deliberate intent. “The process” of learning bad writing habits “is reversible” Orwell promises, “if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” How should we proceed? These are the rules Orwell suggests:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

What constitutes “outright barbarous” wording he does not say, exactly. As the internet cliché has it: Your Mileage May Vary. You may find creative ways to break these rules without thereby being obscure or justifying mass murder.

But Orwell does preface his guidelines with some very sound advice: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning.” Not only does this practice get us closer to using clear, specific, concrete language, but it results in writing that grounds our readers in the sensory world we all share to some degree, rather than the airy word of abstract thought and belief that we don’t.

These “elementary” rules do not cover “the literary use of language,” writes Orwell, “but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” In the seventy years since his essay, the quality of English prose has likely not improved, but our ready access to writing guides of all kinds has. Those who care about clarity of thought and responsible use of rhetoric would do well to consult them often, and to read, or re-read, Orwell’s essay.

Related Content:

George Orwell’s Five Greatest Essays (as Selected by Pulitzer-Prize Winning Columnist Michael Hiltzik)

George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

What “Orwellian” Really Means: An Animated Lesson About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (12) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (12)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Conal says:

    “Your mileage may vary” is barbarous

  • robert says:

    I think “very” is an overused, mostly meaningless word. Also, more than one exclamation point does not emphasize more.

  • Chris says:

    @robert yes it does!!!!1!!1!1!!!

  • Nicholas Pye-Smith says:

    Good rules. I dislike the use of “exponential increase” for “big increase”, “ecosystem” for “system”, “epicentre” for “centre”, “shell-shocked” for “shocked”, “black hole” for “hole”, “litmus test” for “test” and “tectonic shift” for “big change”. I see that between them these break all the rules except (iv) and (vi).

  • Patrice Hale says:

    The word ‘should’ is essentially guilt inducing as in ‘blaming the victim’.It helps protect those of us who can’t accept the random horror of life. Also, don’t get me started on the ridiculous invasion of ‘like’. Every time I hear it misused I flinch. Anyone else notice above thoughts?

  • Michael says:

    Totally agree with you, Patrice. I’ve often described ‘should’ as a judgemental word.

  • Thomas Coello says:

    George Orwell is the appropriate instance of what highbrow honesty and intellectual integrity can do within the arms of an unaided person. He by no means had a consistent publisher, a steady job, or a steady place to live; was continually ill, and usually poor. But still, he controlled to survive and diagnose correctly the three problems of his time; namely, Fascism, Stalinism, and Imperialism. He is an imperishable example.’ Christopher Hitchens

  • Shelley Pickering says:

    It doesn’t seem that people care today about basic English whether it’s spelling, punctuation or even trying to construct a sentence (let alone a paragraph).
    My pet peeves: “ literally and impactful”. The former is redundant, lazy filler, and the latter isn’t even a real word!

  • Ntibibaza Jean de Dieu says:

    Try to explain (I)rule is not explained well like ametaphor, other figure of speech. Ithink this is also not clear statement to everyone.thank you.

  • Badger says:

    Like what?

  • Badger says:

    What happened to the comment I replied to?

  • Nèd says:

    Ironically, Hitchens argued for the war on Iraq and more …

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.