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Old 04-04-2013, 11:35 PM   #16
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I just read a contrarian take on Orwell's rules in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author took issue with his first commandment. 'Elimination of the fittest' she called it. Or something close to that.

For my part, i think Orwell is doing little more than turning a prose style pioneered by others and turning it into dogma. Orwell has great advice for people who want to be mid-20th c. writers, but these days it's more refreshing to read a writer like HP Lovecraft who tells rather than shows, who delights in the labyrinths of language.
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Old 04-05-2013, 12:28 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by barutanseijin View Post
I just read a contrarian take on Orwell's rules in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author took issue with his first commandment. 'Elimination of the fittest' she called it. Or something close to that.
But you can see what happens when people don't follow that rule in about 90% of today's journalism: Survival of the tritest.
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Old 04-05-2013, 02:00 PM   #18
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I agree with doubleshuffle completely but do see your point.

The trouble is that Geoffrey Pullum's piece resorts to character assassination, death by personal example and Boolean exception instead of recognizing the practicality of avoiding stock phrases. He seems more concerned with alleged people who worship Orwell than the usefulness of his idea. If he were pointing out exceptions or advising against accepting Orwell's rules uncritically, then his piece might be more valuable to the writers and students he's trying to reach.

Giving them permission to write thoughtlessly, unfortunately, is offering something they have already.

Of course many of the phrases which Orwell detested in his complete essay have faded into disfavor, and of course the use of stock phrases will continue to shift as decades and centuries wane. The goal is not to avoid the popular. It is to step over corpses en route to reaching the reader.

No point in approaching Orwell's first rule as if it were inflexible dogma; instead, understand the purpose and the potential outcome. Like the rules of baroque or modal counterpoint, this one is not intended to forbid possibilities but to create livelier and more independent voices.

Academic writing can be vital and lively too, as writers like Ruskin and Cixous have shown us. But I would argue that the need to avoid clichés is more pressing in fiction, poetry and journalism. Think of it less as a taboo than an invitation to formulate original thoughts. Yeats talked about the calculated use of "numb words" in poetry (perhaps in contrast to Keats's "load every rift with ore"). You could argue that the pomo extension of numb words is entire clichés, modes and scenarios, but I would argue that that premise, even stylistically, is responsible for the wearying and arbitrary channel switching of a great deal of sustained postmodern pastiche. I personally do my best to avoid it now, having spelunked in that cave -- ad nauseum and stir -- in the past.

I also feel that avoiding clichés in journalism can be a service to ordinary readers. Why not give ideas fresh expression when you can instead of massaging dead perceptions and reinforcing obvious turns of thought? Why not help people to think for themselves instead of treating them like parrots?

Last edited by Prestidigitweeze; 04-10-2013 at 09:06 AM. Reason: Corrected the author's name at doubleshuffle's prompting.
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Old 04-06-2013, 04:45 AM   #19
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Thanks for the link to that article, P.weeze.

It's really a pity that it's such a spiteful little article, for of course the author (Geoffrey Pullum, not Anne Curzan, btw) has some valid points. There are phrases and idioms that are basically harmless and useful, and quite a few of them are on Orwell's hate list quoted by Pullum.

Isn't it a matter of balance, in the end? Language, in order to be understood, needs a certain amount of familiarity. The question is how much. The answer should always be: as little as possible; how much that 'little' is will depend on the purpose of the text.

But, obviously, if that purpose is ultimate affirmation of the status quo, i.e. keeping yourself and your readers from any uncomfortable thinking, then the answer will be: pile on the clichés and create that warm, pleasant, mushy vibe of pseudo-thinking that will keep everybody's brains blissfully unaware of their own dullness.
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Old 04-06-2013, 03:00 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by doubleshuffle View Post
But, obviously, if that purpose is ultimate affirmation of the status quo, i.e. keeping yourself and your readers from any uncomfortable thinking, then the answer will be: pile on the clichés and create that warm, pleasant, mushy vibe of pseudo-thinking that will keep everybody's brains blissfully unaware of their own dullness.
Did Orwell himself really break through convention or challenge his readers? His most well known books are conventionally-told tales that the Cold War west was ready to hear.

If you think through the linguistic politics implied in this essay & 1984, it comes down to a kind of Leninist/Confucian rectification of names. Through calling things by their proper names -- which are what exactly? -- the writer will raise the consciouness of readers and bring order and harmony to the realm.
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Old 04-06-2013, 03:41 PM   #21
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I don't see the kind of mythical thinking you imply in Orwell. Order and harmony won't be reached by simply calling things by their proper names - that idea would be utter tosh, and Orwell would be the first to say so.

Not calling murder, for instance, by its proper name, however, (and murder does have a proper name, which is, well, murder, right?) will always mean aiding and abetting it.

I don't have time for a longer and more in-depth answer right now, so I know you will think I am hopelessly naive. Rest assured that I do know how that stuff about the proper names isn't all that simple... More later.
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Old 04-07-2013, 07:10 PM   #22
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I read through this thread with interest, because I was taught by those who generally supported Orwell's views. That said, there is a place for idiom in writing, I think.

My main character is an Australian and I've written in first person (present tense) so slip in the occasional Aussie-ism from time to time. My teachers would generally agree with what I've done, provided I keep it minimal, because a little goes a long way, and usually, I have it in the dialog, not the prose.

That said, it's a matter of pride that I not only avoid cliches and stock phrases, but strive to create my own similes and metaphors and descriptions that are mine and reach the imagination of the reader. It irks me when I pick up a book and find it riddled with phrases that have been, ahem, done to death all over the place. (Sorry.)

When I wrote earlier "generally supported Orwell's views", I think that responsible writers ought to use their judgement in their writing and not - as someone has suggested - dogmatically adhere to a set of rules.

When writing, I don't want to insert into my work, words that so irritated me, as a reader.
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Old 04-09-2013, 03:55 PM   #23
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Then there's the question of what is and what isn't a cliche. There are idioms that people really use, and there are idioms that only fictional characters use, and the latter just winds up looking phony.
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Old 04-10-2013, 12:01 PM   #24
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This is a great thread... but I must add my one disagreement I have with George's #1 rule: It's okay to use common similes in dialogue for a character you've created that breaks that rule.

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Old 04-11-2013, 08:46 AM   #25
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DS:

I'd wanted to respond last week but found myself mired in busywork. I try not to respond hastily because I grew up among friends who insulted one other for the aesthetic pleasure -- you should have seen us cupping our chins and nodding vigorously at one another's most savory invective -- and so my tone, if unmonitored, can sound harsher than intended.

I tend to think Orwell's list is irrelevant. To trash his rules because of items on his usage list is not only too literal but impractical -- and there are many precedents.

Nabokov hated the verbal manifestations of self-satisfied banality, which he liked to call Poshlost, but his examples of Poshlost often seem more intolerant than apt. Yet the absence of banality in his own work is exemplary, which means that the principle of avoidance which guided it is far more important than the specific phrases he hated and discarded.

Do yourself this solid: If ever you're able to see an exhibit of Nabokov's manuscripts, break prior engagements and go. If the exhibition is half as extensive as the one I visited for several days at the Donnell Library in NYC, you'll find texts so carefully written, you'd have thought better substitutions and revisions couldn't be made. Yet Nabokov made them -- endlessly -- and his choices were unerring.

The first time I went to that exhibit, I made the mistake of looking at Yeats's manuscripts afterward (which were displayed on a lower floor). While brilliant in themselves, they seemed hopelessly vague after a few hours with Nabokov's.

From that day on, I studied Yeats's manuscripts first so as not to ruin my appreciation of them. That's how precise Nabokov's writing really is.

* * * *

Another problem with clichés is that reliance on them makes for flabby thought.

Here's an exercise based on personal (and possibly irrelevant) experience, but try it if you have the time: Write three pages describing a common event without using any stock phrases. Better yet, pretend that no stock phrases had ever existed and try to coin your own.

The idea is that the writing will be better, but in my experience, the writer's own thought and sense of awareness benefit as well. Avoiding clichés for, uh, extended periods makes me feel more alert critically and artistically. Writing vigorously while sidestepping clichés is an excellent way to begin one's daily relationship with the digital page -- I try to start when I wake up. The music of successive sentences will always carry me, and emotional rhythms and refrains create the narrative's groove and drive, but keenness of thought is what guarantees a worthy destination.

Lazer:

Perhaps you're assuming too much when you interpret Orwell as saying that one shouldn't write ordinary characters whose conversation consists of clichés:-- doing so is a conscious act; ideally, one is choosing those phrases in a critical context that resonates with readers who are wary of those kinds of expressions. One is casting a revealing light on the familiar.

Calculated mistakes in grammar and even punctuation can be filed in the same folder (I'm thinking of Ring Lardner's epistolary short stories in which the characters who write to one another are made to seem borderline illiterate).

Also: Orwell himself tells us to break the rules when necessary in Rule 6. Some people bristle at the word barbarous, as if Orwell were being prissy, but what he's really saying is this: Listen to your own judgment.

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Originally Posted by doubleshuffle View Post
It's really a pity that it's such a spiteful little article, for of course the author (Geoffrey Pullum, not Anne Curzan, btw) has some valid points. There are phrases and idioms that are basically harmless and useful, and quite a few of them are on Orwell's hate list quoted by Pullum. . . . Language, in order to be understood, needs a certain amount of familiarity. The question is how much. The answer should always be: as little as possible; how much that 'little' is will depend on the purpose of the text.

But, obviously, if that purpose is ultimate affirmation of the status quo, i.e. keeping yourself and your readers from any uncomfortable thinking, then the answer will be: pile on the clichés and create that warm, pleasant, mushy vibe of pseudo-thinking that will keep everybody's brains blissfully unaware of their own dullness.

Last edited by Prestidigitweeze; 04-19-2013 at 01:00 AM.
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