George Orwell’s contributions to clear legal writing

July 22, 2007 | By | Reply More

Best known for his dystopia, 1984, George Orwell cared deeply about language. A good example is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” 

Judith D. Fischer reviewed Orwell’s contributions to the use of plain English in legal writing in “Why George Orwell’s Ideas About Language Still Matter for Lawyers.” Montana Law Review, Vol. 68, p. 129, 2007. Fischer reminds us of the twin themes of Politics and the English Language: writers should express themselves in plain English and that “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” prevent or conceal clear thought. According the Orwell, “The fight against bad English is not frivolous.” What is the bottom line?

Orwell argued, because clear thought is necessary for cogent analysis, writers who avoid bad habits in their use of language will think more clearly.

(p. 130). Orwell crystallized his approach to writing into six 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 where a short one will do.

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

Needless to say, these rules, inter alia, are commonly broken by sesquipedalian lawyers as indicated and set forth in the aforementioned discussion. Or should I say, rather: Lawyers often break these rules. Lawyers aren’t the only culprits, of course. Politicians have done their share of damage.

Citing an article by Michael Traynor, Fischer asks us to consider the Orwellian titles to two federal laws, the “Clear Skies Initiative,” a law that “would increase pollution,” and the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act,” which would “deplete forests.”

Clearly, much work remains to be done. The legal writing we see in trial court and appellate court briefs is often opaque, sometimes impenetrable. On the other hand, many lawyers and judges have taken conscious steps to clean up their writing. Fischer points out various “legal writing experts have explicitly acknowledged their debt to Orwell.” Those experts include Bryan Garner, whose seminars and written works make clear legal writing their constant and unrelenting focus.

On a personal note, to the extent that my own legal writing is cleaner than it might have otherwise been, I’ve long owed a debt to Garner. For lawyers who want to make their writing more understandable and punchier, a good place to start is Garner’s The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts (2004).


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Category: Law, Politics, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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