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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell
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What are the two qualities that the examples of badly written passages have in common?

The two qualities shared by all the examples of badly written passages are stale imagery and a lack of precision.

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In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell gives five examples of passages recently written in English to illustrate the faults he is discussing. These passages, he says, all share at least two faults: the imagery is stale and the writing imprecise. These problems are linked, because both...

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In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell gives five examples of passages recently written in English to illustrate the faults he is discussing. These passages, he says, all share at least two faults: the imagery is stale and the writing imprecise. These problems are linked, because both show that the author is not paying careful attention to his own writing.

For instance, in the second passage, Professor Hogben writes about playing ducks and drakes with a "native battery of idioms." The phrase "to play ducks and drakes" was old-fashioned even when Orwell was writing, and few readers knew precisely what it meant either literally (to skim a stone across water) or figuratively (to waste or squander). The imagery is, therefore, clearly stale and will not catch the reader's attention or imagination.

However, there is another problem with the phrase to "play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms." It is unclear what the image is supposed to convey. In what sense is anyone playing ducks and drakes with these idioms? Does Professor Hogben mean that people are squandering these expressions because they use them too frequently? The reader is likely not only to be bored by the familiarity of the image but also, paradoxically, to be uncertain of just what it means.

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