Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.

Would Orwell hate the cliché to which his pseudonym has degenerated? How much contempt would he have for those seeking seances with him in the blogosphere? Well, as he says in Animal Farm, “the only good human being is a dead one.”

Like a true Marian martyr, Tom Chivers announces his heresy proudly amid the brewing thunderclouds:

He clearly was one of Britain’s greatest ever writers; an extraordinary novelist and journalist, a fierce and clear voice warning against totalitarianism, and prophetic, in a way. But I get a bit annoyed when he gets quoted as an authority on how to write – most especially, when the “laws” from his essay “Politics and the English Language” get bandied about as THIS IS HOW YOU DO WRITING, GUYS.

For the record: it’s not. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority. But even an idiot like me can see that his rules make no sense.

Well, Orwell definitely wasn’t “all that” but he was a sizable portion. Enough, I think, for me to play the apologist.

Orwell bold, Chivers below:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

Never use a figure of speech which “you are used to seeing in print” is a bit weird. For example, you could make the case that “figure of speech” is a figure of speech, since the things it refers to are not literal figures, ie physical shapes or written symbols, but metaphorical ones. And you’ve definitely seen it in print lots and lots. And there’s nothing wrong with it. “Don’t resort to cliché” is what he means, but it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying.

Bit of a crafty point. Alluring casuistry, in any case. “Figure of speech” is not a cliche; it is a phrase in its own right. It’s a term which is both technical and standard English. It is a plea to originality, not just the trope to “avoid cliches” – John Rentoul gets it.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do

Language Log nails the “Never use a long word” and the “Never use a foreign phrase” one neatly by pointing out that “when a shorter one will do” or “an everyday English equivalent” are entirely subjective terms. In the very same essay, they point out, Orwell talks of “scrupulous writers”. Could he have said “careful”, Language Log wonders: “Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?” Similarly, foreign and technical words have subtly different meanings to the English equivalents: there are no true synonyms. “Don’t show off by using needlessly fancy language”, again, is so obvious and unhelpful that it doesn’t need saying; it’s little better than saying “write well”.

Oh, now. “Subjective”. One of the most important roles of the polemicist is to act as the medium between dry academia and people; it’s a theme of which Orwell is most embracing. Animal Farm warmly invites Stalinism into English circles; it’s how my 10 year-old self, ignorant of communism, managed some level of understanding of the Russian Revolution. That ‘s to say nothing of the layman’s venture to the imperial world in Burmese Days or the critique of capitalism via Comstock’s romance in Keep the Apidistra Flying. Perhaps it’s why many see him as a better journalist than novelist given how successfully he blurred the two professions.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

Three: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” should, by its own rule, be “If it is possible to cut a word, cut it.” Or even “Cut words where possible.” Is that better?

No, because it’s less memorable. It might be valid a statement but it neglects Orwell’s literary purpose that the “possible” considers.

Even if it were better, wouldn’t that prove the point?

4. Never use the passive when you can use the active

“Never use the passive” is complete nonsense and Orwell uses it regularly himself because there is nothing wrong with it.

Sure – but the active does usually add urgency, as many journalists would do well to remember. And it’s not as though he’s dismissing the passive, the implication being that the active is not always appropriate – as in rule 3, “possibility” does not have a doctrinaire definition. Many people don’t think about that; others do. As Chivers says, it’s “subjective” – and Orwell is fully aware of the difficulties of exercising rules on polemical grammar.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Five we’ve dealt with; see two.

Me too, I think. But I’ll add something further about jargon – because Chivers himself avoids it very well, especially given how much effort to which the government has gone to cloud the technical changes it’s making to the NHS. Jargon is a diagnosed symptom of intellectual constipation.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous

Six: So what you’re saying, Mr Orwell, is that applying rigid rules to writing is unhelpful and silly? At last we agree.

The point behind Politics and the English Language was to explore how one may be used to transmit the other. Wordplay does not create meaning in and by itself. Better to write an important point poorly than a terrible one crisply.

Some writing is good, and others is bad; and in so rich a language tepid generalisations for each are the best we can hope for. Of course, any rules can therefore inevitably be reduced to “largely empty” advice. I am, after all, partly playing devil’s advocate here because some of Chivers’ criticisms are very valid. I simply mean to show that pedantry and application do not necessarily obscure the importance of the points Orwell is making.

Anyone, after all, who treats Orwell’s rules dogmatically breaks the point behind the first. (Hence six.)

Confused, puzzled, dazed? Watch this terribly exciting video instead.

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4 Comments on “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad.”

  1. Colin says:

    The most amusing thing is that this trotskyite and socialist has become the ward of the American libertarians to be dug up at every turn to deflect the evils of the modern day.

    • Mark says:

      Haha that’s a really great way of looking at it. It’s often forgotten that it wasn’t just the Stalinist left he rejected – it was the far right too. Good man, good man.

      • Colin says:

        I was wrong saying he was a Trottie, though. I went back and checked, and he was a non-Stalinist Marxist and a democratic socialist. In the Spanish Civil War he belonged to the group Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista which translates into something like the Party of the Marxist Workers.

  2. Mark says:

    Yeah the POUM was Trotskyist-sympathising but not explicitly Trotskyist. As with the New Left, no real definition beyond being somewhere between the two poles of social democracy and Stalinism. A pretty big gulf it has to be said!


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