The English language generously provides us with more than half-a-million words to work (and play) with. Yet consider how often we find ourselves straining to find the right words to express our thoughts. As the English novelist and journalist George Orwell once asked, "Is there anyone who has ever written so much as a love letter in which he felt that he had said exactly what he intended?"
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 Orwell observed in the essay "New Words" (1941), "So soon as we are dealing with anything that is not concrete or visible (and even there to a great extent--look at the difficulty of describing anyone's appearance) we find that words are no liker to the reality than chessmen to living beings."
Orwell's Five Rules
Another reason some readers might be surprised to hear such thoughts from Orwell is that one of his best known essays, "Politics and the English Language," seems to assume a contrary stance. There, after illustrating "the decay of language" in his time (the 1940s), he offers as an antidote six elementary rules. Here are the first five:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Similar to the "practical rules" delivered 40 years earlier in Henry Fowler's The King's English, Orwell's precepts, though simplistic, appear to be sensible enough. We can fix the language, he seems to be saying, if we'd just stop doing these bad things.
Orwell's Sixth Rule
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. "A writer," he once said, "can do very little with words in their primary meanings. He gets his effect if at all by using words in a tricky roundabout way."
The Limits of Language and Rules
When instinct fails, rules may guide us. But rules shouldn't preoccupy the writer. The real job, the enduring task of the writer, is cultivating the instinct for language--even when language so stubbornly resists the precision we seek.
Another great stylist, French novelist Gustave Flaubert, expressed the point more eloquently: "Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
Selected Works by George Orwell:
- Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933. Reprinted by Harvest Books, 1972.
- Homage to Catalonia, 1939. Reprinted by Harvest Books, 1980.
- Animal Farm, 1945. Reprinted by Harcourt, 2003.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Reprinted by Harcourt, 2003.
- The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage, Harvest Books, 1961.