In George Orwell's Politics and the English Language he says:

Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.

What exactly is wrong with these expressions? They seem perfectly fine to me.

  • 1
    I didn't know they had disappeared, although I haven't heard them lately!
    – TrevorD
    May 9, 2016 at 17:13
  • 1
    I'm guessing in Orwell's time the phrases were overused, then jeered by a few, and therefore used much less for a while. As we know today, they did not say dead.
    – GEdgar
    May 9, 2016 at 17:29

2 Answers 2


It is precisely because "leave no stone unturned" and "explore every avenue" are honored by centuries of use that Orwell didn't like them. He states very clearly in this essay that:

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 not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don't have to hunt about for the 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. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style.

Orwell makes the point that "language can corrupt thought." Writing that relies on cliches and what Orwell calls "flyblown metaphors" tends to become automatic, creating a pattern of thought that likewise becomes automatic, oversimplified, less than incisive. Writing in cliches makes writing more accessible because people like familiarity, but Orwell was forever searching to shake up the status quo, to challenge weak writing that refuses to think for itself, but instead relies on hoary constructions that virtually all writers fall back on to avoid the hard work of originality. His first rule for writers who wish to persuade, which answers the question posed here:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Other advice that he includes in this essay:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell, by the way, recognized that he was often guilty of violating these principles himself.

  • Orwell did have a way of writing with simple candour. And I profoundly respect his values. But he held what some may regard as excessively analytical views about authors such as Kipling and Dickens, asking questions like Where does he stand, socially, morally, politically? subjecting Victorians to the didacticism of the mid-20th century. And Orwell's own writing was not exactly free of allegory, as Animal Farm bears testament. If metaphor anaesthetises, its absence I fear might send the reader to sleep with boredom.
    – WS2
    May 9, 2016 at 21:36

You might well ask! I'm not sure why Orwell didn't like them.

Leave no stone unturned is honoured by centuries of use. As The Free Dictionary points out:

This expression alludes to an ancient Greek legend about a general who buried a large treasure in his tent when he was defeated in battle. Those seeking the treasure consulted the Oracle of Delphi, who advised them to move every stone. The present form dates from the mid-1500s.

As it says the first English example available in the OED is from circa 1555:

c1555 Manifest Detection Diceplay sig. Bvi, He wil refuse no labor, nor leaue no stone vnturned, to pick vp a penny.

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    Orwell's thesis is that "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible." Ornate language and effete phrases (like the one about unturned stones) "anesthetize the mind" and allow us to propose and accept the outrages we would reject otherwise.
    – deadrat
    May 9, 2016 at 19:19

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