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6 Rules to Learn, then Break

April 13, 2011

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.”

When do you think this statement was made? Was it an English teacher wringing her hands over the rise of txt spk? Or a commentator bemoaning the fact that spell-check has savaged our ability to spell?

Nope. It was the opening line of George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics & the English Language‘. Poor George. Imagine if he were alive today. He’d blanch at the barrage of weasel words and double-speak (yep, he coined that term) that characterises corporate language, with all its ‘value-drivers’, ‘critical paths’ and ‘outcomes-focused’ claptrap.

Orwell’s essay is as relevant today as it was more than 60 years ago. And while I’d like to paraphrase him, I’ll restrain myself and implore you to read his essay – it’s worth the 20 minutes it will take (time during which you’d probably just frig around on Facebook anyway).

If you don’t however, let me share with you his parting words of advice. I am a particularly nerdy manager, because I once printed these out and stuck them on my team members’ desks, with fond hopes of compliance. (Compliance was patchy, if you’re wondering).

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.

I try to live by these as much as possible, but l’d say first is the hardest because media love a good cliche. I can predict which quotes they will run from a media release, and it will be the one with an apt turn of phrase that gets the point across -i.e. a cliche.

And of course, I broke rule 5 in my first post, using French. But you know what? I like French. So, perhaps rule 6 is the best one.

Ultimately, I believe you need to know the rules before you break them. Break them consciously, with a purpose, and not because you’re too lazy to think of a new expression,  unpack an awful cliche, or challenge a client who thinks and dreams in jargon.

It’s always a battle, but I reckon it’s one worth fighting.


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  1. like’ em….second one’s better, first one a bit “preachy”

  2. Much as I love Orwell, I have very mixed feelings about that essay. His clear love for the language is undermined a bit by his peeving! Sometimes the passive voice is preferable to the active. Sometimes a long word carries the necessary weight, and a short one that “might do” doesn’t have enough effect. And so on. The rules are similar to the ones at the start of the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English. Helpful guidelines to begin with, but they ought never to be be turned into unbreakable rules.

    • Stan, I agree completely. Strunk and White are the same – good guides, but sometimes they are a bit bossy. What’s useful is to have seen the ‘rules’, mulled them over, then decided whether you like them.

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