Yesterday I was meandering through the back channels of the FT and came upon an article which intrigued me. It linked to a series of six youtube videos concerning active and passive phrasing in English. Fairly dry stuff you might think. Not so dear reader. There is considerable dusty passion raised within the grammarian community on this issue, even about misquoting Orwell over his famous active vs passive quote. What Professor Pullum says about Strunk & White, long thought the short cut to grammar expertise, is highly entertaining. Well, at least to anyone even vaguely interested in constructing cogent prose.
Most people’s eyes will glaze over and go away to watch a funny cat video when he starts talking about transitive verbs, but I found his six talks highly enlightening and a classic example of how groupthink and widely promoted misinformation can degrade a subject. Particularly such a critical one as English.
Like quoting out of context, because in communicating an idea, context is everything. Particularly from Orwell’s much quoted essay “Politics and the English language” in which he says;
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Now point iv is the one writing ‘gurus’ always trot out, but this raises the question; have they been abusing this quotation all along? Now I think point vi is the money shot because it tells the reader to ignore all of the above rules rather than write something which lacks clarity.
Because clarity in communicating ideas is everything and a soft word spoken truly is sharper than a swung Katana.