Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Mind your language- Five Rules of George Orwell

Language is a tool of communication. But most of us tend to flaunt our vocabulary as a prized possession. In many cases we go for clumsy sentences, cliché and jargon which make our writings and other content expressions weak. This may sound simple, but this is probably the most difficult task we journalists face. We work against time. We have daily challenge of meeting deadlines. Competition stress drives us to short cuts like cut-paste. 

If you want to be understood, if you want your ideas to spread, using effective language must be your top priority.
In the modern world this is hardly ever the case. In many instances, imprecise language is used intentionally to avoid taking a position and offending various demographics. No wonder it's hard to make sense of anything!
This is not a recent problem, and as George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, the condition is curable. Try these 5 Rules of Orwell.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such as toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, Achilles' heel, swan song, and hotbed come to mind quickly and feel comforting and melodic.
For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.
What does expressions like inclusive growth or HDI mean. They just mean benefit of development to all. It's so simple.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Long words don't make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation they'll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They're also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read. Faulkner criticised Hemingway for his limited word choice. Hemingway said, Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. Accordingly, any words that don't contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power. Less is always better. Always.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This one is frequently broken, probably because many people don't know the difference between active and passive .  Here is an example that makes it clear:
The man was bitten by the dog. (passive) The dog bit the man. (active).
The active is better because it's shorter and more forceful.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon if you can think of its equivalent in your language.
This is tricky because writing now a days can be highly technical. If possible, remain accessible to the average reader. If your audience is highly specialized this is a judgment call. You don't want to drag on with unnecessary explanation, but try to help people understand what you're writing about. You want your ideas to spread right?
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
This bonus rule is a catch all. Above all, be sure to use common sense.
These rules are easy to memorize but difficult to apply. The key is effort. Good writing matters, probably more than we think.
I hope you find these rules helpful including my bonus rule and through their application we're able to understand each other a little bit better. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to read Orwells original essay. It contains many helpful examples and is, of course, a pleasure to read.

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