The six rules of style

This year I had the pleasure of being introduced to Ms. Pam Orth, a former English and Journalism teacher at San Luis Obispo High School. As a gift she gave me a copy of a weekly magazine I had never read before, New Scientist.

Back in her teaching days, Ms. Orth utilized this magazine in the classroom. She would bring in copies to her ninth grade English class and brainstorm with them the good elements of its writing style. It served her double purpose to teach technical writing and to expose her students to interesting and modern nonfiction.

My personal interpretation of how New Scientist has reached such a polished level is that it has mastered clear, concise language. To test this hypothesis, I critiqued an article from New Scientist using George Orwell’s six rules of style (from his essay, “Politics and the English Language”).

The Rules

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word when a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive when 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.

The Article (“Music to your ears” Jacob Aron, 19 Feb 2011)

1. I read the article several times, completely astonished, because I could not find a single cliché.

2. This article deals with the problem of open-air music concerts and how to enhance their vocals, which are often hard to hear from the back of the crowd. The largest words are ‘optimising’ and ‘implementation.’ Very easy to understand.

3. How many words can you cut before the article’s meaning is lost? I think this article has some extra words, but cutting out many more would disrupt the narrative.

4. Not a single passive verb! I am very impressed.

5. Well, any scientific publication is going to fail this rule. However, it is necessary to find a balance, to make sure that the reader will understand all the vocabulary being used. Examples of technical words are ‘FM radio antenna,’ ‘GPS sensor,’ and ‘Wi-Fi.’ The author helps explain some of the words with a diagram of the FM antenna. The article does assume some degree of cell-phone proficiency in the reader.

6. A good article by Orwell’s standards and mine!