George Orwell on Writing Well

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are familiar reading for many of us. A few years ago a student suggested I also read his essays, and in particular, “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell, A Collection of Essays 156-71 (10th ed. 1981).

In this essay, Orwell claims that the English language is in decline, and that the decline has “political and economic causes.” (156) Orwell asserts, however, that the “bad habits” in written English can be avoided. (157) He reasons that in getting rid of these habits, “one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (157)

Orwell criticizes writing that is imprecise, stale, and lacks imagery. (158) He also criticizes writers for “gumming together” meaningless phrases. (164) For instance, Orwell prefers “I think” to “in my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that.” (164) Using stale metaphors saves “mental effort,” but produces “vague” meaning for both the reader and the writer. (164)

Orwell claims that the language decay can be cured by taking “conscious action.” (169) He recommends the following six basic rules:

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.” (170)

Professor Judith D. Fischer examines Orwell’s impact on legal writing in her article, Why George Orwell’s Ideas about Writing Still Matter for Lawyers, 68 Mont. L. Rev. 129 (2007). Professor Fischer describes how Orwell’s commentary on writing propelled the plain English movement and how Orwell’s six rules have influenced modern legal writers. (134-35)

Orwell’s comments on modern political writing struck a cord with me. His description of bad political writing reminds me of bad legal writing. I think the similarity exists because political writing, like most legal writing, is designed to persuade. The phrases that Orwell points out as particularly troubling are the same types of meaningless strung-together phrases found in bad legal writing. Nominalizations and passive voice would be at the top of my bad legal writing list.

A nominalization is when a verb, adjective, or adverb is used as a noun. For example, “her justification for being late was that the traffic was bad.” Justification is the nominalization in this sentence. The verb “to justify” is turned into a noun by adding “ion.” A writer can do an easy check for nominalizations by searching for “ion” words in a draft. This example could be strengthened by editing: “she justified being late by saying the traffic was bad.” The sentence is shorter, and the connection between the noun and verb is more evident in “she justified”. The verb “justified” also packs more impact than the verb “was.” The second sentence introduces the word “saying”, which adds more detail to the sentence.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence comes first, then the verb, and then the object of the verb. For example, “the judge overruled the objection” is in the active voice. The same sentence in the passive voice is “the objection was overruled by the judge.” In the passive voice, the object of the verb comes first, then the verb, and then the subject. The passive voice can be effective when used to soften an action or tone. Generally, though, using the active voice will eliminate nominalizations and create a close connection between the noun and the verb.

In his essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell reflects that “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” (316) Good, plain legal writing allows a reader to concentrate on the legal subject at hand.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Casey Kaiser

    Great article, Professor. It got me thinking how ungood it would be to have to write a brief in Newspeak.

  2. Martin Tanz

    I remember reading that essay years ago. It always stuck with me and I think of him everytime I hear bad rhetoric from other lawyers, corporate flacks, or government spokespeople.

    I wonder, though, if we haved lapped Orwell’s Newspeak and have overtaken Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat. What is it going to be like in a decade or less when the generation that learned to speak and write on smartphones and on social networking arrives in law school?

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