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Something (probably not) outright barbarous

Politics, science and the English language

Jan Jacardos 23 June 2013

Orwell: Rule-breaker (Wikipedia Commons)

Forget the vast majority of what you know about scientists through fiction so far – it’s mostly bullshit

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, Eric Arthur Blair, one of the greatest writers of the past century (better known under the pseudonym George Orwell), claimed the importance of clear and accurate writing (1). As a cure to bad writing, he formulated six rules, which preach for avoiding the use of trite metaphors, long or redundant words, the passive voice and technical terminologies.

Although Orwell’s rules are devoted to conceal politic propaganda and halt spreading of oppressive ideologies through the use of elusive language, they are well-established in other literary fields and not only restricted to political prose. Preference of the active over the passive voice, for example, is a widespread dogma in fictional prose and can be found in works as diverse as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and Stephen King’s On Writing.

Orwell’s essay is relevant for science as well, and not only because a flair for politics might be of help in the business. Scientists should feel concerned about their writing style, as advancements of science are primarily communicated by the writing of papers. In fact, scientists also like to tell stories: in scientific terms, you have a “good story” when you have convincing results which you can present in a prestigious journal or to a renowned conference.

Given that, Orwell’s teachings might be adopted to scientific writing. The use of metaphors (see rule 1: “Never use a metaphor […] which you are used to seeing in print”) in science is more common that one realizes (think about translating the genetic code, for example) (2). But in scientific literature, metaphors are mainly used in a paradigmatic way and therefore stripped down of their evocative power, which is in disagreement with Orwell’s first rule. Concise formulations (rules 2 and 3: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”), though, are sought after and widely used, if only for the sake of reducing page charges while publishing. On the other hand the passive voice is seen ad nauseam in the scientific literature, even more than the active one (rule 4: “Never use the passive where you can use the active”). I’m unsure where this tendency comes from but I suspect it has to do with the false modesty of scientists wanting to dodge excessive exposure, which also leads to the widespread utilization of the “we” form – commonly in single-author articles as well. Rule 5 (“Never use […] a scientific word […] if you can think of an everyday English equivalent”) is, of course, not applicable.

What about non-scientific writing having science or scientists as main – and realistic – subjects? Definitely, a writer should apply rules of fictional prose to write a captivating piece. Metaphors and analogies – good ones – are powerful tools to illustrate scientific concepts. I can’t imagine how a narrative can be gripping when using the passive more than the active. As for a narrator who uses the plural pronoun when talking about something he did, I would think from the second page on that he suffers from some peculiar form of schizophrenia – this would fit for Joseph Conrad’s character or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, maybe, but I’m not totally convinced.

Rule 5, tough, should be broken. After all, scientific terms are unequivocal and avoid a flood of unnecessary words. I have a clear impression of that when reading a technical paper in Nature on a topic with which I’m not familiar: I need PubMed, Wikipedia and/or Encyclopedia Britannica to get through the first three sentences, mostly. Given that jargon is not used to confound the reader – who would aim to do that other than political propagandists? –, their introduction in fictional prose on science will be consistent with rules 2 and 3, at least once the concept behind is initially explained. (Carl Djerassi in The Bourbaki Gambit even used illustrations to explain how the PCR works, and if you think that’s nerdy you’ll be surprised to find plenty of sketches in Stephen King’s books.) Lab lit is a relatively new genre with the unique ability to raise the interest of the non-scientifically inclined toward science, so the use of specific terminology is inescapable if you, as an author, want to push forward scientific facts and to render a veritable portrait of interpersonal dynamics in a real lab. Forget the vast majority of what you know about scientists through fiction so far – it’s mostly bullshit. And consider this: science fiction is full of jargon words – only the scientific accuracy behind it mostly makes little sense.

The topic that science-in-fiction deals with can be made exciting not only for insiders. There are nice examples of how to entertain a reader with the allegedly boring topic of academic research, like the books of Carl Djerassi, David Lodge and a growing number of authors which I have not yet got around to reading since I have the bad habit of buying three books for every two that I manage to actually get through. And you’ll find more far-reaching cases: John Grisham thrilled readers with truthful portraits of court proceedings, Ken Follett made people fond of architecture through his enthralling historical novels and Orwell himself greatly contributed to establishing and developing political fiction. Law, history, architecture and politics: they are not what you’d traditionally think as fancy topics, would you? As long as a story is absorbingly told, nothing should prevent anyone from writing about science in a realistic manner.

Fortunately, Orwell was well-known for his aversion to strict standards and added a footnote rule to his remedy to lousy writing. Rule 6 read: “Break any of these [previous] rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” I’m not sure what would be more barbarous – if breaking rule 5 or not – while writing lab lit pieces, but at least George Orwell won’t turn in his grave.


1. George Orwell (1946), Politics and the English Language. First published in Horizon, London, Great Britain

2. See for example (retrieved 23 June, 2013)