2/20/09

George Orwell's Six Rules for Writing

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

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

* From Orwell's essay “Politics and the English Language”

3 comments:

RobisonWells said...

Wow. I haven't ever seen this before, but I really like it. #5, in particular.

Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury said...

I would just like to be sure that people know what is meant by "passive" as opposed to "active" (#4).

I run into too many people who think "passive" means whenever to be verbs appear in a sentence. This isn't necessarily passive, but it is usually what might be called "static" (another kind of opposite to "active").

Passive voice is when the usual subject of a sentence is either removed or becomes the object of the action. In passive voice, instead of saying "the dog bit the man" you would say "the man was bitten by the dog," or you would just say "the man was bitten" and get rid of the dog entirely.

Passive voice is used a lot in scientific papers where what is important is not who did the experiment, but what happened in the experiment ("the rat was placed in the maze and tested" is passive because you never say who put the rat in the maze and who tested it, because that doesn't matter).

Passive voice is also used a lot in political and military reports or anywhere else that someone doesn't want to establish responsibility for something (as in "mistakes were made").

President Monson uses passive a lot ("hearts were touched" and "tears were shed" and so on), and I suspect it's because the action is what matters to him, not who did it, especially when it might appear that he was taking credit for things the Lord has done through him.

So, please, when passive is mentioned as a writing problem, we need to make sure people understand exactly what is meant.

Marsha Ward said...

Kathleen, thanks for clearing this up for readers. I hate when writers get advised to take out every "was" in their project.

In other news, passive voice is often used appropriately in minutes of meetings and society-page type newspaper articles--where they still exist. =)