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Old 03-28-2013, 03:25 AM   #1
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Clichés and George Orwell's Six Elementary Rules

In reviewing The Economist Style Guide while working on a British article, I happened to reread George Orwell's "six elementary rules" for style in the introduction:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print [or other media].
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Five of the rules are de rigueur for nearly everyone, but I wonder how many of us who learned to write from television, pop music and the web actually follow the first.

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Old 03-28-2013, 06:14 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
[...]Five of the rules are de rigueur for nearly everyone, but I wonder how many of us who learned to write from television, pop music and the web actually follow the first.
If you learned to write from television, pop music or the web then you would probably believe that using cliché was de rigueur. Which, I suppose, was your point, but it also follows that using phrasing that has become comfortable for your readers can have some benefits (in limited doses). For example you can say in a few well known, clichéd, words what may otherwise take much longer (which is where rule 6 comes in, I guess). Like so much in writing, it's a balancing act with no clear boundaries.
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Old 03-28-2013, 06:36 AM   #3
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"Using phrasing that is comfortable for your readers" seems to me to be covered in the other five elementary rules.

We could perhaps talk about using informal levels of language and simple sentence structure, but I think Orwell left that out because he didn't want to be too prescriptive or encourage formulaic writing.

A cliché only seems to express an individual writer's POV. A thought becomes original when it is formulated in original language.

Self-published e-books and blogs are great options for everyone, including people who have never been published before. It's moving to see so many distinct and even anomalous faces.

Unfortunately, clichés render those faces expressionless.

I want their expressions to have expressions.

The saddest thing about the internet might be the abundance of clichés. Too many of us have mistaken overuse for consensus and consensus for truth.

And of course, the conflation of opinion with reporting is not unrelated to the substitution of clichés for thought.

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Old 03-28-2013, 07:52 AM   #4
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I think that sometimes the cliché can be the right choice. I'm writing some westernised versions of Asian folk tales at the moment, and I used 'in the wink of an eye' yesterday. I was going to scrub it on edit but on reflection I left it in as the phrase resonates with western readers, placing the story firmly in fairy/folk tale territory.

Perhaps the rule should be use clichés knowingly or not at all?

Of course, I could just be wrong to have left it in!

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Old 03-28-2013, 09:01 AM   #5
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I don't know exactly how you used your cliché, but I think you've got the gist.

The technique I learned was to use a cliché only if you could find some paradox or turn of phrase to make it unique. "Put a special kind of spin on the ball as you throw it," one editor wrote. An example: "Now that you've played easy to get, don't prove anxious to be owned."

Some people would say to use clichés ironically, but reflexive irony can be its own kind of cliché (and surprisingly mindless as well).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Graham View Post
I think that sometimes the cliché can be the right choice. I'm writing some westernised versions of Asian folk tales at the moment, and I used 'in the wink of an eye' yesterday. I was going to scrub it on edit but on reflection I left it in as the phrase resonates with western readers, placing the story firmly in fairy/folk tale territory.

Perhaps the rule should be use clichés knowingly or not at all?

Of course, I could just be wrong to have left it in!

Graham

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Old 03-28-2013, 09:05 AM   #6
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[...]Perhaps the rule should be use clichés knowingly or not at all?
I think that covers it pretty well. All writing should be deliberate; it should have been placed there, like that, for a reason - and not just because you didn't know any better.

Is there a difference between a cliché and a common idiom? I'm not sure there is a clear line between the two. Some things are obviously cliché, but some phrases have become a more integral part of the language.

For example, what about: "didn't know any better"? (I used it above.) Is that cliché?
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Old 03-28-2013, 09:09 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
[...]Some people would say to use clichés ironically, but reflexive irony can be its own kind of cliché (and surprisingly mindless as well).
I think this is a good point. What is cliché does change over time. A phrase is at first seen as clever, it gets widely adopted and eventually seen as cliché, and then later may move into the language or go out of fashion so that it becomes something that gives a text a certain retrospective style.
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Old 03-28-2013, 09:16 AM   #8
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For example, what about: "didn't know any better"? (I used it above.) Is that cliché?
Levels of cliché range from innocuous to cripplingly obvious. You might write characters who use clichés to show their limitations or reveal a certain kind of background. You might even have them botch the cliche (as many real people on the internet do unknowingly) for comic effect.

Even in that case, I'd try not to overdo it (cf. standard dialogue in '40s slapstick).

The phrase "didn't know any better" is one that I might avoid, but I don't find it irritating a la carte. If, however, you'd used it in this way, I doubt you'd have been interested in the discussion we're having: "The streetwalker was just built that way. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, that bad girl didn't know any better."

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Old 03-28-2013, 09:43 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
[...]The phrase "didn't know any better" is one that I might avoid, but I don't find it irritating a la carte. If, however, you'd used it this way, I doubt you'd have been interested in this discussion: "The streetwalker was just built that way. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, that bad girl didn't know any better."
Love it! A great example of how to turn something relatively harmless into something over the top. It's also a good example in relation to my other post. Various elements of those two sentences have entered the language as common expressions (that might not offend too badly in other contexts), and even put together like you have them you can see that the cliché expressed has (almost?) evolved into something that a writer might deliberately choose to give their writing a retrospective (or deliberately comic) feel.
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Old 03-28-2013, 05:16 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print [or other media].
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These are great rules. The thing I wonder is certain genre have key words they always use that are foreign/jargon/etc.

For example:

hyperspace
comm
raise him/her/it on the comm
klick
Class M Planet
Class G Star
humaniod

and so on. Are those kinds of things "cliche'" or jargon or etc under these rules?
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Old 03-28-2013, 06:42 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
In reviewing The Economist Style Guide while working on a British article, I happened to reread George Orwell's "six elementary rules" for style in the introduction:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print [or other media].
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Five of the rules are de rigueur for nearly everyone, but I wonder how many of us who learned to write from television, pop music and the web actually follow the first.
He must have read William Strunk's book "The Elements of Style." Point #3 is right out of his book. i.e. 'omit needless words.'
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Old 03-29-2013, 02:17 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by Prestidigitweeze View Post
In reviewing The Economist Style Guide while working on a British article, I happened to reread George Orwell's "six elementary rules" for style in the introduction:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print [or other media].
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Five of the rules are de rigueur for nearly everyone, but I wonder how many of us who learned to write from television, pop music and the web actually follow the first.
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Old 03-29-2013, 04:00 AM   #13
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He must have read William Strunk's book "The Elements of Style." Point #3 is right out of his book. i.e. 'omit needless words.'
The above rules were taken from Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," which preceded Strunk and White's popular version of Elements of Style by thirteen years. The original version by Strunk alone was published privately in 1918 to be used at Cornell, the university where he taught, but I question whether a British writer like Orwell needed to track down such a rarity to reinforce ideas of style which his writing already exhibited. If he were interested in an American's thoughts on style, he'd be more likely to find a book like Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. And since Orwell was English, he was already familiar with Fowler's Modern English Usage, which extols the virtues of simplicity, brevity and unpretentious diction.

Besides which, the Strunk and White is good but not definitive. I've found other books more helpful ultimately, especially The Reader over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (if only it were available as an e-book!), and Edward Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, as well as -- I say this hesitantly -- The Chicago Manual of Style. And though I detest certain of his assumptions, Fowler's book on usage and its updated versions have been helpful as well.

Crich:

I realize this is OT, but you might be amused by Derek Pell's parody of Elements of Style, in which he takes Roland Barthes' comment on the writings of the Marquis De Sade literally: "His pornographic messages are so pure they might be used as grammatical models." In fact the entirety of Pell's parody consists of examples taken from Sade to illustrate (along with several ridiculous collages) the rules in Strunk and White. There's also "A Chapter on Writhing."

The parody was published as a separate book but is also available from FC2 in Pell's collection, X Texts, which also features two other hilarious pieces: The opening of Breakfast at Tiffany's as written by William Burroughs and a parody of Nabokov which concerns the main character's lust for an extremely old Lolita.

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Old 03-29-2013, 04:42 AM   #14
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Just googled that Derek Pell. Now here's a guy who thinks outside the box. One might even say he pushes the envelope...


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Old 04-01-2013, 04:15 AM   #15
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