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20 Tips For Writing Clear English

In an earlier blog I talked about George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which set out some of the author’s ideas about clear English.

This new blog has 20 further tips on how to write in a clear Orwellian style.

Here I reclaim the word Orwellian, and use it only positively, the essence of good writing and clear English.

This blog extends Orwell’s rules, and tries to pin down what we mean by that, using writing techniques Orwell might have approved of.


Book and Glasses

Orwell’s six rules

My earlier blog highlighted Orwell’s five basic rules for writing clear English; and a sixth rule (anti-rule?) that basically said ‘write anything you like as long as it’s not outright barbarous’.

As I suggested there, this is a different approach to English language rule-making.

It seems to come full circle. First set out the rules, then at the end simply negate them. Create a general awareness of the rules – an unconscious sense of them in the background – and you don’t even need to enforce them.

I prefer to think Orwell’s sixth rule was tongue-in-cheek, a wry provocation to grammar sticklers, fuddy-duddies, spelling trolls and flamers.

Personally I like the structure and certainty that rules on grammar, punctuation and spelling give us. So what follows is my own set of 20 tips for producing clear English in Orwellian style.

Mountains

The word Orwellian

Good Orwellian, that is, not bad Orwellian. The word Orwellian sometimes has bad connotations, as if the political conditions described in the author’s most famous novels – excessive socialism, state control and extreme rigidity in society – apply to his writing style as well as to the political environment he writes about.

And Orwell’s message in Politics and the English Language – that politics and language are inseparable – maybe supports this association.

I don’t agree with this negative view. To me the word Orwellian signifies only good clear writing, and I am looking to reclaim it.

So my 20 tips try to extend Orwell’s first five rules, especially emphasising structure and punctuation which hold the key.

Of course my tips have nothing to do with the author himself. Orwell would certainly have distanced himself from such musings. But anyway, here they are. Below each tip are comments and examples.

If in doubt, aim to be clear. Nothing else really matters.

Chimney and Sun

Tips 1 to 6: Structure and Punctuation

Tip 1. Keep sentences and paragraphs short.

This sentence is nice and short.

This sentence, on the other hand, is a bit too long, has too much punctuation (especially commas) and gets lost by the time you get to the relative clause near the end, which makes the sentence a bit too long for comfort.

Tip 2. Or break them up.

You can easily break up a long sentence with a semicolon or set of dashes, especially to create a breath; the above sentence in Tip 1 might have been better like this; with nice semicolons to help you catch your breath a couple of times.

Tip 3. Don’t overuse semicolons.

But beware developing a semicolon fetish. More on that in a future blog. And don’t use more than one (semicolon OR set of dashes) in the same sentence, like I did under Tip 2.

Tip 4. Don’t over punctuate.

Mainly hyphens and commas. Avoid them unless critical to the sense. It is easy to get in a habit of using more commas than you need to, usually when the sentence is over-long, like this one, and has lots of silly, flowery, unnecessary adjectives that need breaking up.

Tip 5. Get your apostrophes absolutely right.

Nothing distracts or annoys your reader more. Nothing’s more annoying than missing apostrophes; except superfluous ones.

Tip 6. Be consistent.

Be consistent using punctuation or styles that can legitimately vary (brackets, inverted commas, dashes and the like).

Be careful with hyphens and dashes: style guides often have the answers on that. Be careful with different inverted commas for speech, emphasis and whatever else you use them for. Be consistent using hyphens. Consistency does matter, because inconsistency distracts from sense and meaning, and creates annoyance in the reader.

Rotated Plinth

Tips 7 to 13: Vocabulary

Tip 7. Don’t use too many long words close together.

It’s up to you how you define long. But whatever you decide, a guide might be to avoid using more than one long word in a single sentence. Avoid pomposity.

Tip 8. Limit your use of adverbs.

In fact, try to avoid using them almost completely. Enough said.

Tip 9. Be careful with adjectives.

If you must use adjectives try to keep them short, on the whole, and avoid bunching them. You could say this is a rather harsh, unnecessary and patronising tip. Some adjectives go together perfectly well, especially if an adverb or two is used alongside. But as Orwell said, rules are there to be broken.

Tip 10. Avoid capital initials.

Except in proper nouns and headings. And at the start of sentences of course. Sometimes things like white papers, research reports, committee minutes and the like seem self-important enough to come with capital initials: don’t!

Tip 11. Avoid clichés and proverbs.

Like the proverbial plague.

Tip 12. Make up new words if it makes sense.

Make up your own word if its sense is clear: it may appear in the OED one day. I have invented the odd word if it wasn’t quite there for me, like pointscast to mean points forecast. Don’t be brainstrung by convention.

Tip 13. But be careful with Latin.

Unless the context justifies it. Some Latinisms like ad hoc, etcetera, post mortem and quid pro quo are fully embedded in English; others like inter alia, ceteris paribus, mutatis mutandis, and sine qua non aren’t and should be avoided.

Nice Roof

Tips 14 to 20: Grammar and Usage

Tip 14. Relax about the passive.

Whatever Orwell says. As long as your usage isn’t tortuous. If it suits your purpose, use it. I am a fan of it, at times, and don’t like to be told not to use it. Even if that message is one of Orwell’s five rules.

Tip 15. Relax about tense.

Don’t tie yourself in knots getting the right tense for a verb unless it really matters to the sense. Listen to your ear on this. Had, have, would’ve or will: if it sounds OK use it.

Tip 16. Subject-verb agreement.

But do bother with proper agreement (singular-plural) between subject and verb, even if the subject is a long way back in your sentence. It shouldn’t be, if you have stuck to short sentences. But it can happen in a sentence where a singular subject followed by plural words gets overwhelmed by the plural words and forgets it is still singular.

This is a common problem. It used to be called subject-verb disconcord but no-one now seems to use that particular Latinism. Good!

Tip 17. That or which?

Use that and which sensibly in relative clauses. Use your ear to determine which of the two (or neither) makes sense. How it sounds matters. Alternately is a possibility but there are no strict rules.

Tip 18. I or me?

Many people now use ‘I’ (subject) when they really mean ‘me’ (object). This is an overcompensation from years of effort to ban ‘me’ being used as a subject. If I am the object, it’s correct to use ‘me’. Don’t overcompensate. My wife and I get quite upset about that. It upsets my wife and me.

Tip 19. Be careful with TLAs.

If you use a three letter abbreviation (TLA) use the long form first followed by the TLA (in brackets). Then use the TLA alone. TLAs are a curse of modern English usage but in fact quite handy. As long as they are clearly indicated upfront I can’t be arsed (CBA) to complain.

Tip 20. Leave barbarism at home.

For my last tip I brazenly repeat Orwell’s sixth rule on clear English, the anti-rule.

Ignore any of the above tips rather than say something outright barbarous.

Don’t be afraid to trash what you think are old-fashioned rules or conventions for the sake of clarity.

Start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘Or’ if it makes sense. Have a sentence with no verb. Why not? Split your infinitives as much as you like. You can easily make sentences that don’t fulfil rigid stylistic rules but still convey sense. Trust your instincts. Use your ear, aim for sense and clarity, and abide by a few definitive hard rules on punctuation.

That’s it: clear English defined in 20 short tips.