Writing Advice from Strunk, White, and Orwell: “Avoid Fancy Words”

By Jack Limpert

A letter to the editor in yesterday’s Washington Post:

Using Fancy Words Gratuitously
I wish journalists would heed the advice in “The Elements of Style,” Strunk and White’s classic book on writing, which includes “avoid fancy words.” Despite this sound advice, journalists continue to bombard us with foreign phrases just to let us know that they are highly intelligent. Does it ever occur to them that most of their readers won’t know what the fancy words mean?

A recent violator was Kathleen Parker [“Our Clinton madness,” op-ed, March 18], who wrote that “the media and Hillary are locked once again into a folie à deux (shared madness).” I assume she added the English translation because she knew readers wouldn’t understand the French reference. Why didn’t she simply use English?
—William K. Suter, Alexandria, Virginia
George Orwell had something similar to say under the heading “Pretentious diction” in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
In the “Writer’s Guidelines” that we used for many years at the Washingtonian magazine, I included these suggestions from Strunk and White and Orwell:

Suggestions on Style
We have no rules on writing style. The style should come naturally from the writer and the material. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:
—Be specific, concrete, definite.
—Use the active rather than the passive voice.
—Put the statements in positive form.
—Write with nouns and verbs.
—Don’t overstate.
—Avoid the use of qualifiers.
—Don’t explain too much.
—Avoid fancy words.
—Be clear.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.”

Some of Orwell’s suggestions:
—Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
—Never use a long word where a short one will do.
—If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
—Never use the passive where you can use the active.
—Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
—Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One last word: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”


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