Orwell is Alive and Pretty Sick

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness…. As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.”


from Why I write by George Orwell


Orwell concludes that the writer who writes this way–by means of mimicry–“is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”

Don’t Ask Rhetorical Questions

“Was there any symbolic language, they asked, that could employ the strengths rather than the weaknesses of chimpanzee anatomy?


“The Gardners hit upon a brilliant idea: Teach a chimpanzee American sign language….”


from The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan


If you are going answer the question, don’t ask it. It’s sloppy style.

Throw Mama From the Train a Kiss

A misplaced modifier can be funny or just plain confusing. In any case, it ought to be corrected.


“Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.”


from Dispatches by Michael Herr


This says that the medics were going out at night. Using the second person (“gave you pills”) probably led to the mistake. There was no need to use it, because the rest of the passage is in the first person. Better: “When we went out at night, the medics gave us pills…”




“A son of the British Empire, Alan Turing’s social origins lay just on the borderline between the landed gentry and the commercial classes.”


from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges


This says that Turing’s social origins were a son, which is nonsensical.

On Harmony

“Sounds interlock and intermingle

     like the five colors of embroidery,

     each enhancing the others.”


from Wen Fu by Lu Chi (261-303), known in English by the title The Art of Writing


Perspective: Where the Sidewalk Ends

“Part of scientific method is to find out something and then see if you can find out the same thing another way. For that reason, this floating laboratory will use a variety of means to examine the dead zone at the same time but from different persepectives.”


From: Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell


She uses the word “perspectives” when she actually means “points of view” or “viewpoints.” The word “perspective” is best used when referring to that place in works of art where the railroad tracks seem to merge.


These two sentences suffer from a number of other ailments, but I won’t go into them here. See if you can see them.

Writer’s Block

            Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel…” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel…” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”


            You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.


From Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee


Don’t know who John is? Look here:





Using the word “only”

“I Only Have Eyes For You” is a song introduced in the film “Dames” in 1934. It was made even more popular by a doo-wop group, The Flamingos, in 1959. Unfortunately, it commits the most common error in the English language, the misplacement of the word “only.”


In the title of this song “only” modifies “have.” So I don’t give eyes for you, I don’t borrow eyes for you, I don’t lend eyes to you, but I only HAVE eyes for you. That’s not what Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who wrote the song, meant. They meant, “I have eyes for you alone.” No need for the word “only.”


This from the novelist Kingsley Amis, who fancied himself a grammarian and enough of an expert on the language and its rules to write a book with the daring title The King’s English (Penguin, 1997):


“The rule is that words beginning with an H only take an when they begin with a genuinely silent H, like heir, honour, hour, and their derivatives.”


He’s saying those words “take an,” they don’t give an or lend an or borrow an….. The way he has it “only” modifies “take.” What he meant was this: 


“The rule is that words beginning with an H take an only when they begin with a genuinely silent H, like heir, honour, hour, and their derivatives.”


Yet even that construction is pretty awkward. “The rule is that,” for example, is downright clumsy.


Better: “Use the definite article an before words that begin with a silent H, such as heir, honour, hour, and their derivatives.”


We all make these mistakes. “Even” is another one of these perilous words, for even the majestic Kingsley Amis can screw up this business of trying to write clearly. I do, too. Read my work and trip me up.


Search for the word “only” and study where you placed it. Chances are, it’s out of place. Chances are you don’t need it.