Teaching Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’

A succint commentary by tutor Frank M, introducing Orwell’s relatable rules to avoid incomprehensible overwriting. Frank attained a Double First in English from Cambridge University and has offered private tuition since 20 since 2014 to primary, secondary and tertiary level students. To engage Frank as your personal tutor, email or call +44 207 3856795.

I teach George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ to all students, whether they are at the beginning of secondary school or heading off to university. In the essay, Orwell provides a catalogue of linguistic “swindles and perversions” that include “pretentious diction”, “meaningless words”, “operators” and “dying metaphors”. He both quotes and mocks up examples of incomprehensible overwriting, telling us with characteristic wit how to write and, more pressingly, how not to.

Orwell’s target throughout the work is a kind of academese to which students so often fall victim. Of course, their culpability is limited. Students write in this way because it is the style of so much of what is presented to them to read. And yet I find that almost everyone with whom I have read this essay—whether they are twelve or twenty—immediately understands what it refers to. I often find students can rapidly identify Orwell’s parodies of bad writing in their own work. What is so wonderful about the essay is that it applies with an astonishing relevance to all forms of writing, and is as useful to someone working on a science fiction novel as it is to someone writing a GCSE essay on Harper Lee. 

I am aware of the risks of writing an article on lessons in style. Readers could fairly charge me with hypocrisy. But I read ‘Politics and the English Language’ with students in part because I find it so useful for myself to reread. I think of the essay as a kind of mantra to be uttered before writing or—if too late—at least a self-flagellatory device with which to edit.

The five rules the essay ultimately yields are the following:

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

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

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

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These should be magnetised to fridges and pritsticked to the inside of notebooks the world over. Orwell humbly acknowledges that “these rules sound elementary […] but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” It has been three quarters of a century, but the “fashion” is as universal and as destructive as ever.

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