Orwell on Language

Subject: Orwell on Language
From: Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- FS -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Sun, 30 Mar 1997 00:15:52 +0800

Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- AXIONET -dot- COM> said:
> For example, George Orwell, who advocates the active voice in "Politics
> and the English Language" starts off "Shooting an Elephant" with "In
> Moulein, in Upper Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people. . ."
> I'm quoting from memory, so the words may be a bit off, but the point is
> that Orwell broke his general principles when he had a good reason to do
> so.

He didn't just do it, he made it the last of his 'general principles'
(he calls them rules):

" vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright

'Politics and the English Language' is a fine essay. Most people only
know Orwell for talking pigs and Big Brother, but his non-fiction is
well worth the attention of any serious writer or reader. It got me
started on the road to being a tech writer.

Orwell was writing about political language in the 1940s, but his
description of bad and dishonest writing is alarmingly familar here
and now. His examples may sound old-fashioned but the problems they
demonstrate are timeless.

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

> And one more thing: contrary to the perscriptive grammarians, you don't
> always want to avoid passive voice.

Can you name any prescriptive grammarians who recommend always avoiding
the passive voice?


The short but unavoidably ugly
Stuart Burnfield (slb -at- fs -dot- com -dot- au) Voice: +61 9 328 8288
Functional Software Pty Ltd Fax: +61 9 328 8616

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