On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six 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.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.


I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

Sunday Fun: Write Your Own Punchline

The Scene: The President and the Secretary of the Treasury have had it with the debt ceiling limit fight and have therefore ordered the minting of a one trillion dollar platinum coin. They meet at the deposit window, where an old clerk wearing a green eye shade and holding a ledger, waits expectantly.

President Obama: What are you waiting for Tim? Give him the damn coin!

Secretary Geithner (looking guilty): I, uh, wanted a Diet Mr. Pibb and I didn’t have any other coins…it was one of those machines that doesn’t give change. Don’t get mad; think of the stimulus!

or perhaps “Sorry, I’ve been meaning to get that hole in my pocket stitched, but I’ve been so busy with the federal budget and my yoga class and…”

Or…what? Over to all you RBCer’s with funny bones.

The Panetta-Burns statistic

Phony questions in polls are funny, but also useful.

Chuckles all round about PPP´s poll asking for opinions on the nonexistent ¨Panetta-Burns¨ deficit reduction plan (8% for and 17% against) and whether defunct ACORN stole the 2012 election (49% of Republicans think so).

Perhaps this is more than a nice once-off gag. Double-blind clinical trials of new medicines calibrate them against placebos and white coats, which usually have some effect. Lie detection sessions are calibrated on questions known to be true and known to be false.

Including phony questions systematically in polls would give an indication of the attention the public is paying to the issue, or at any rate to the pollster´s question. Informed pollees may just be taking the mickey. But the mickey-takers are there anyway, creating error. A ringer question flushes some of them out.

Imagine a Presidential election poll.

If the election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?
Mitt Romney, Republican Party
Barack Obama, Democratic Party
Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party
Jill Stein, Green Party
James Wimberley, Eurocrat Party

Since the election was very important and media coverage was beyond saturation, the ringer (me) would get a near-zero response. Not so, as PPP has shown, for a highly technical and artificial Beltway flap like the fiscal cliff. You could call the percentage response the ¨Panetta-Burns statistic¨.

Ethics Question

I am facing a serious ethical dilemma upon which I would like some input:

If you are a blogger on a website that is achingly short of hitting a monthly visit milestone it has never reached before (For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 150,000 visits) and the month is almost over (for the sake of example, let’s say there are only 5 hours and 51 minutes left in the month in question), is it morally wrong to post an phony ethical dilemma for the sole purpose of attracting the additional few visits you need to reach the milestone?

Deeply interested in your thoughts if you are one of the first 14 people to read this post. Else, never mind.

Solar ginseng

Solar greenhouses for ginseng – and marijuana?

Renewables blog Cleantechnica reports on the clever French:

Hanwha Solar is providing 7.7 megawatts of an 8.7-megawatt installation on a building owned by Solvéo Energie in Rion-des-Landes, France. This nine-hectare rooftop solar project of 36,900 panels fosters just the environment needed for the four-year growing period ginseng roots need before harvesting.

Photo from Solvéo

Solar greenhouses exploit advances in translucent PV modules. Frank Gehry (naturally) has designed a building for Novartis in his signature beanbag style covered entirely in the things.

This is fun, but also important. Solar energy is practically a free lunch except for one thing: land use. There’s always the Sahara but it’s the wrong side of the Atlantic for you. Dual-use photovoltaics are going to be essential: curtain walls, car parks, greenhouses.

Ginseng isn’t the only crop that likes a bit of shade. Another is RBC’s perennial favourite, marijuana.

I expect “medical” pot entrepreneurs in California are already looking at this opportunity.

Here’s a tip for them. To get their next legalisation proposition over the hump, why not add a green spin, and link it to demands for a favourable feed-in-tariff or tax breaks for their solar greenhouses?

RBC readers clearly enjoy competitions. So please supply a bumper-sticker slogan for pot legalisation coupling it to green energy.

Silicon Valley is Pot Valley
People who live in glass houses should get stoned

Snarky campaign slogan contest: we have a winner

Snarky Campagin Slogan contest: we have a winner.

There were a lot of great entries in my snarky campaign slogan contest. As sole judge, jury, executioner, Personal Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, my decisions are:

Continue reading “Snarky campaign slogan contest: we have a winner”

Snarky campaign slogan contest

Taking suggestions for the best snarky campaign slogan.

My friends at The Democratic Strategist have for a while now been running at the top of their home page a picture of an Etch-a-Sketch containing the words, “Romney: you may not agree with what he says but you can trust him to deny he ever said it.”

That’s good. And it’s the kind of snarky wit we need more of in American campaigns, which tend to veer between the two great, awful, American registers, namely Midwestern Nice and moralized outrage—or  sometimes American Jeremiad, an art form which by platypusing the worst aspects of both those registers manages at once to voice optimism, or at best Christian hope, and self-righteousness.

So: I hereby solicit candidates for the best snarky campaign slogan. Entries may be original or may quote somebody else, but if the latter please give proper credit. The goal is not a campaign slogan that would actually be effective—which would almost certainly require less snark—but shivviness: cruelty, humor (or better, humour), and the shock of recognition that comes from naming a truth, or at least an effective partisan accusation.

I have my own suggestion: “Vote GOP: it’s great to have a party of old people led by children.” If  you can do better than that, please do.

[Slogans from the other side are welcome too, and I hope I can take a joke at my team’s own expense. Try to top this, as you probably can: “Vote Obama. Because  a nice speech makes unemployment all better.”]

The winner will receive eternal fame in this space, and a gift certificate for a Heffalump. The contest ends Wednesday at noon, Pacific time. Update: make that Thursday (September 21 20) at noon, Pacific time. I forgot about Rosh Hashanah and want to give all our readers equal snarking opportunities.

Update: We have a winner.