George Orwell’s web content advice

How to write understandable English text.

George Orwell, 'Politics and the English Language,' 1946
drawing: Bernd Pohlenz

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:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.


George Orwell
1903 – 1950
author

Animal Farm
Nineteen Eighty-Four


This is a parody, but not a very gross one.


A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


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.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.


 
Bravo!

Visit my website: http://russbellew.com
© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

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