Writers love George Orwell. He wrote this:
- 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.
Legend. If discovering or being reminded of these rules is what you take away from this post – then my work here is done. However, if you want to know what Orwell was really getting at, read on.
Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, from which the above is an excerpt, makes a more fundamental point than simply how to write good. He is concerned with the effect of language on our ability to think.
He claims that not only do foolish thoughts lead to ugly, stale and inaccurate language – but that ugly, stale and inaccurate language ‘makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’ He says: ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’
The more we use poor language, the poorer our thoughts become.
If we don’t have the words we can’t have the thoughts.
Orwell was writing about the language used by politicians. He was concerned, not just that they all get their points across clearly, but that they preserve the ability to have a point worth making in the first place. That, when alone in their minds, their attempt to formulate ideas is equipped with the best arsenal possible – in array, range, and accuracy. That they are able to have the important thoughts in the first place, before they even say a word.
It is easy to imagine that for politicians the thoughts that they have are a matter of life and death to others, because they consider and discuss policies concerning military action, social welfare, security, crime and health.
But what are the consequences of your thoughts? On your business, your relationships, your health, your future, your art, your contribution? The popularity of cognitive therapy suggests that the ability to change what you think about yourself and your environment is crucial to your ability to change at all. But from where will you get the language for those new thoughts?
What if improving your language could unlock a greater range of options for your work? That by learning to speak and write more accurately – as we all can – you might begin to think more accurately too?
Orwell wanted people to say more clearly what they meant. But he wanted them to mean something worthwhile to begin with. Behind his excellent editorial tips lie two principles that should underpin everything that we write:
- Mean something before you say anything
- The clearer your language, the better your thoughts
Something to think about the next time you use leverage as a verb.
What do you think?