Carol Vorvain (@writersboon) is an Australian international lawyer, mediator, author and founder of Writers Boon. Her books, When Dreams are Calling, Why not? - The island where happiness starts with a question and A Fool in Istanbul - The adventures of a self-denying workaholic have been featured in a number of travel magazines including the International Traveller magazine and can be found in libraries, bookstores and on Amazon.
“Politics and the English Language,” Orwell’s masterwork and history’s best advice on writing.
Originally published in 1946, decades later, the book remains a remarkable clarion call for mindfulness in writing.
So, what Orwell considers to be the most prevalent “bad habits” responsible for the“mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that poisons the English language?
1. Pretentious diction
Words like phenomenon, element, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate are used to give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, deus ex machina, status quo are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers nearly always choose Latin or Greek words over Saxon ones.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
2. Meaningless words
Words like romantic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion.
Many political words are similarly abused. The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
3. Dying metaphors
These are worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. ”
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Orwell concludes with a practical checklist of strategies for avoiding such complicated and meaningless prose:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
So, next time inspiration hits, ask yourself these questions. They will help you in making your writing simple and easy to read - a sure recipe for any bestseller.
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