Orwell's Politics and the English Language is a beautifully written language crime, though it pretends to lay down the law. Furthermore I just noticed that its final law is rather curious. We'll get to that shortly.
Orwell begins with the unjustified premise that language is in decline – unjustified because while he viciously attacks contemporary cases of poor writing, he provides no evidence that earlier times had been perennially populated by paragons of literary virtue. He proceeds to shore up the declining language with style suggestions that, regrettably enough, have never turned a Dan Brown into a George Orwell.
Customers who buy into Orwell's shit also buy Strunk and White, and further milquetoast simulacra of one or the other, so it's worth looking more closely at what he proposes. Let's start off in time honored Language Log style, by seeing how Orwell breaks his own rules. Showing a lack of imagination that would be worthy of someone who lacked imagination, Orwell suggests the following rule, his fourth rule, a rule that in various forms has been heard many times both before and since. Verily shall I yawn unto you Orwell's unoriginal original (c.f. this discussion of how it predates Orwell):
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Are you still awake? Then get this, his third rule:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
And wouldn't you know it, the very first sentence of Orwell's essay runs:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
So, Orwell writes "it is generally assumed", which is passive. Why didn't he say "people generally assume", or "we generally assume", both of which are perfectly grammatical, are one word shorter, and are not passive? Answer: because the passive is slightly better here. But why? And how could rules like Orwell's possibly help someone who didn't already know which version was better find out? I wish I could write like Orwell. But his injunctions don't help. In fact, they cry out for him to be hoisted by his own pedantry and held up to public ridicule.
Let's move to his first rule "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print"? Yet we only need to read as far as the second sentence of his essay to see him talk of the "collapse" of civilization. That would be a literal collapse would it?
His second rule is "Never use a long word where a short one will do." The question of whether a short word will do is subjective, but one of my favorite aspects of Orwell's writing is his free use of long words where short ones would have done. When he says "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions…" could he have used the shorter "careful" instead of "scrupulous"? Not quite the same meaning, of course. But would it have done?
If longer words generally have slightly different meanings to shorter ones, then surely the right injunction is to use a word which means what you want to say, regardless of length. Orwell himself says: "let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around." Quite. But then, why do we need a rule that's based on the length of the word and not its meaning? Isn't it imprecision of language that Orwell really objects to, the fact that poor writers settle for words that will do, instead of using words that fit?
The same criticism applies to his fifth rule: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." Orwell again misses the mark, to my mind. Sure, people occasionally show off with big words, Greek words, French words, and technical terms. (I blush.) But an occasional display of grandiloquence, or of in-group language, is hardly a crime, and it certainly isn't evidence for the decline of language. Our use of big, Greek, French, or technical words is only a problem if we don't say what we mean, or if our intended audience can't understand us.
OK, fine. Orwell's rules were never likely to rescue the English language, whether it needed to be resued or not. But I promised you a particularly curious rule. Here it is, Orwell's sixth and final rule, and a very sensible and pragmatic sort of a rule it might appear at first, though I will suggest that it is even more useless and peculiar than the others:
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
By intent, this is a meta-rule saying that the rules should be taken as defaults. Now, with the other rules, it's clear what it would mean to obey them, and what it would mean to break them. But here's my question: is it possible to break Orwell's sixth rule, in the form that he wrote it?
To break the rule, you'd have to fail to do the following: break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous. Now, to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous, you'd have to be breaking a rule, right? So, if "break any" is interpreted as "break at least one" in Orwell's sixth rule, the way to fail to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous would be not to break any rules, and to say something outright barbarous. Let us assume that you are breaking the sixth rule itself. Then a fortiori (pardon my Latin) you can't be failing to break any of the rules sooner than saying something outright barbarous. Which means, contra assumption, that you aren't breaking the rule after all. Doh!
What's the point in a rule for which it's impossible to know whether you're breaking it? Or maybe that's the best sort of rule? If only I was better at Doublethink…
ps. The semantically minded among you may be able to come up with an interpretation of Orwell's rule which is saner than the one I adopted, by taking "any" to be a wide scope universal. In that case Orwell's rule is ambiguous rather than mad. I'll leave you to puzzle it out.