Mighty Red Pen

June 2, 2009

George Orwell on writing

Filed under: Grammar goddess — mighty red pen @ 5:54 pm
Tags: ,

Check out this little tidbit, “George Orwell’s Rules for Writers“:

Some might be surprised to hear a wordsmith such as Orwell talking about the inherent limitations of language. After all, the author of 1984 and several classic essays is famous for his taut, lucid style. Why, if anybody could make writing look easy, surely it was George Orwell.

But maybe it takes a master craftsman to recognize the inadequacy of his tools.

As we writers and editors are wont to do, our Mr. Orwell had several of his own rules for writing, among them some pretty common ones (“Never use a long word where a short one will do,” for example). However, author Richard Nordquist wants us to direct our attention to Rule #6, which is the one that interests me the most, as well:

But it’s Orwell’s sixth and final rule that deserves special attention: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s this last point (one that never appeared in The King’s English, by the way) that signals Orwell’s deeper understanding of the power and the limits of language and prescriptions.

Or, as that old saying (apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill) goes: “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!”



  1. “Barbarous” as in uncivilized and harsh-sounding, or “barbarous” as in “not conforming to classical standards or accepted usage”?

    Comment by tk. — June 3, 2009 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

  2. Good question, TK — they do put rather a different spin on his directive, don’t they? I sort of assumed the first definition, but I’m guessing it’s probably the second.

    Comment by mighty red pen — June 4, 2009 @ 7:22 pm | Reply

  3. The second does make a bit more sense: “follow these rules unless it breaks accepted usage”. It seems he might have broken one of his own rules there, if the lesser-known definition of “barbarous” classifies it as jargon.

    Comment by tk. — June 5, 2009 @ 9:21 am | Reply

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