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

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Comments (12)
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  • 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 …

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