‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’ (George Orwell)

George Orwell was a clear and concise writer whose famous essay ‘Politics and the English language’ offered six rules of thumb for clear and concise writing. One of these rules is: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Yet this rule is surprisingly wordy. ‘Cut every word you can’ is shorter. ‘Cut every cuttable word’ is shorter still, but uglier. ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’, adds Orwell.

Orwell cut 2

Here’s a nice example of wordiness from John Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge. Dunn regularly has his wicked way with the English language, producing a large family of unwanted words.

At the start of his classic 1969 book on John Locke, Dunn writes: ‘The claim that the account given here of Locke’s argument in the Two Treatises of Government is “historical” implies that its status depends upon the adequacy of its identification of Locke’s own meaning.’

This it, literally, verbose – too many verbs. The 33-word sentence has four verbs (‘given’, ‘is’, ‘implies’, ‘depends’) and probably needs re-reading to be understood.

Here is what Dunn could have said: ‘This account of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is historical: it seeks Locke’s meaning.’ 14 words: clear and concise. And nothing important has been cut.

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5 Comments

  1. I’d be interested to know why you picked John Dunn as an example of bad writing. Cheers,

    Reply
    • Sorry I didn’t notice your question until now!

      I picked John Dunn as an example of bad writing because I think his work has a lot of examples of bad writing – overly long, meandering sentences. I can normally work out what he means in the end, but it’s hard work.

      The principle is: writers may need to work hard so that their readers do not.

      Reply
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