I ran across George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. In it, he argues in favor of brevity and clarity, and mocks what he calls “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else”.
Orwell examines writing samples and concludes, ” . . . quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose . . . [which] consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”
I wish that Orwell could see what passes for writing in today’s tech and business documents. Many press releases, websites, and speeches are incomprehensible. I wrote about this recently after trying to decipher some tech vendors’ websites (Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net Redux). I have little to add to Orwell’s essay to bring it up to date. All of the remaining words are Mr. Orwell’s:
Here it is in modern English:
This is a parody, but not a very gross one.
- 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?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.