Monthly Archives: June 2015

Orwell’s Rules for Writing [Requirements]

In April 1946, an article titled “Politics and the English Language” by the English author George Orwell was published in the journal Horizon.  In it, he railed against the use of vague and over-stylized language in political speech and journalism, with the paragraph below providing a sample of the tone and content of the article.

 

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called PACIFICATION. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. ” [1]

 

His main point was an argument that the ‘decline’ in the English language as used in journalism and politics was both a symptom of, and a contributor to, the decline of English civilization.   The article ends with the paragraph below in which Orwell appeals for readers to consciously improve their use of English as a way of improving their civilization:

 

” … one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase–some JACKBOOT, ACHILLES’ HEEL, HOTBED, MELTING POT, ACID TEST, VERITABLE INFERNO or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs.” [1]

 

So if you have read this far, no doubt you are thinking “What does this have to do with requirements?”  The answer to that comes towards the end of Orwell’s article when he provides six rules for improving English writing.   And these rules are just as applicable to writing good requirements as they were [and are] to improving political journalism.

 

Those rules are: [1]
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