Category Archives: Figures of speech

George Orwell’s six rules of writing

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published an essay in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language.”  In it he offers six rules for better writing.  I reproduce them here in Orwell’s own words.

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 outright barbarous.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

Do you use metaphors? How about similes?

I don’t use metaphors or similes when I write fiction.  I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years, and so made a resolution to incorporate more metaphors and similes into my writing, especially my fiction writing.  But I have had little success.

Now I know why.

When I insert a metaphor or simile into narration, it reminds readers that an author is writing what they are reading.  A metaphor or simile draws readers away from the story line to consider a comparison.  A metaphor or simile interrupts the flow of writing and takes readers out of the story to consider the meaning of or the aptness of the figure of speech.

And I don’t want that.What I want, as an author, is for my readers to become “one” with my story, to find my story so real, so compelling, that they “live” in the story, unaware of the real world around them.  Metaphors and similes force the reader to leave the story—momentarily, true—and enter the real world to think about the figure of speech.  The flow is broken.

Two exceptions exist. One is that it is okay to include a metaphor or simile in either the spoken words of a character or in his or her thoughts.  Once your smile to me was wine, a character could think as she looks across the table to her long-time husband.  Or a mother beset with children’s demands, a ringing phone, and a dog’s whine could say, “My life is like a soap opera.”  In these situations—thinking and speaking—metaphors and similes still interrupt the flow of the story if the reader needs to think about the comparisons.  But they can seem organic if a character uses them.

Another exception is when the figure of speech is a cliché that is readily understood and needs no consideration.  When a character says, “That water is as cold as ice,” or when another character thinks, I smell a rat, we needn’t think about the comparison because we have heard it many times before and readily understand it.

Of course some writers do use metaphors and similes successfully, especially when a story is told in the first person.  If you have read any of Raymond Chandler’s stories about his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, you have encountered hundreds of figures of speech because the character of Marlow thinks in similes and metaphors.  Those stories are told in first person point of view, so the figures of speech form part of the personality of the narrator.

How about you?  Do you use similes and metaphors?  Do you agree with me that these figures of speech interrupt the flow of narration?

Writing metaphors

Metaphors are powerful figures of speech.  For example, take Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Of the last two identical lines, the first is literal but the second is metaphorical.  The first “And miles to go before I sleep” means just that, a long way to travel before the horse and buggy driver can drop into bed.   But the second “And miles to go before I sleep” means–perhaps–not a literal sleep but the “sleep” of death.  Frost could have ended his poem with, “And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I die,” but how much more eloquent is his repetition of the word “sleep,” a metaphor for death.

EPSON MFP imageReading metaphors requires more of  readers than does reading literal words or even similes.  Readers must make a connection which is inferred but not stated directly.  Yet for their work, readers are rewarded, gaining satisfaction from discovering the meaning of the metaphor.

Metaphors are rarely written by adults and especially not by children.  They need to be taught, and need to be practiced.

Where to begin?  Here are three ways.

  • Suppose a child is writing a story with two or three characters. The child could use ordinary names for his characters, or he could use names as metaphors, the way J. K. Rowling does in her Harry Potter books.  (Malfoy means bad faith; Snape sounds like snake; the “mort” of Voldemort means death.)  A child could create a metaphorical name to reveal something about a character’s nature.  You and the student could brainstorm about a name which indicates bossiness, for example.  It could be a word which means boss (Lord, Lady, King, Rex, Regis, Mayor, Bishop, Majors) or a word which sounds like a word which means boss, even if it is made up (Empor, Captin, Sarge, Leder).
  • Suppose a character is doing something, such as running fast, and the child writes a simile, such as “runs like a cheetah.” Show the child that he could also write that the character “runs on cheetah legs.”  Many similes are easily turned into metaphors.  “as fast as lightning” could be “lightning fast” or “races with lightning steps.”  “Runs as fast as a rocket” could be “blasts on rocket feet.”
  • Ask the child to picture someone’s hands not as hands, but as something else:  scissors, pencils, chopsticks, or hooks.  Now turn that image into a metaphor.  He ate with chopstick fingers.  She arranged her hair with finger combs.  Mom smoothed her dress with finger irons.


“Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you.”

Do you like this quote by comedian Joey Adams?  It’s an example of an elegant and clever figure of speech,  the chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-mus).  You might not have heard the word, but you have heard other examples, such as

  •  “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” (John F. Kennedy)
  • “Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
  • People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
    (Bill Clinton)

A chiasmus (also called inverted parallelism) inverses the original grammatical structure or idea in a sentence using a particular pattern.  First comes an idea or structure in two parts, such as A (Let us never negotiate) and B (out of fear).  Then comes the inversion, starting with part of B (but let us never fear) followed by part of A (to negotiate).

This inversion can be shown in a diagram as


A chiasmus can sound formal because its structure is symmetrical.  For example, take JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Its structure can be shown as

your country you you your country


But a chiasmus can also sound informal, as by English comedian Chris Addison who said, “The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears.”

bear arms arm bears


Using chiasmi in literature goes back thousands of years when it was popular in Greek writing and in the Bible to underscore order.  Socrates wrote, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”  Shakespeare often used chiasmi, such as “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in Macbeth.

Plots can use chiasmi.  At the start of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens has Dr. Manette curse all the members of the Darnay family; later Manette’s son-in-law, Charles Darnay, is sentenced to the guillotine because of Dr. Manette’s curse.

Chiasmi tend to slow down writing because the reader wants time to understand the logic, and then to marvel at its cleverness.  Used appropriately, chiasmi can add style to your writing.