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Politics and the English Language

by George Orwell

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Summarize and paraphrase the following opening paragraph from George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language."

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."

Quick answer:

Paraphrasing a work is primarily concerned with putting the work into one's own words. The main goal in summarizing is to provide a clear overview of the work. When paraphrasing Orwell’s passage from "Politics and the English Language," extra words can be discarded, and words like “decadent” and “civilization” can be simplified. A summary should probably note the presumption that links language to civilization. It should also clarify Orwell’s stance on that presumption.

Expert Answers

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When you paraphrase, you put someone else’s words into your own words. It’s like a form of translation. You take their words and say it in a way that makes sense to you. Usually, your way will be more concise, compact, and simple.

When you summarize a work, you’re putting the primary ideas into your own words. With a summary, you’re not translating. It’s more like you’re providing an overview. In a summary, your primary aim is to provide a clear rundown of what you just read.

If I had to paraphrase the first sentence of Orwell's passage, I’d write the following:

Most people believe the English language is not in great shape and that it can’t be improved.

I took out what I believed to be the extraneous parts and reworded what I believed to be the most important part of that first sentence. Let’s try the second sentence:

People believe there’s a connection between our immoral way of life and our debased language.

Again, I took out the parts that I felt were extra and tried to simplify the central point of the second sentence.

If I was making a summary, I’d include Orwell’s acknowledgment of how people believe the English language is degraded and can’t be changed. I’d also make sure to clarify that Orwell doesn’t necessarily agree with that hypothesis. I’d note how Orwell seems to feel that language is not a “natural growth.” Orwell appears to think that people can do something about the “shape” of the English language and perhaps the state of English civilization.

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A summary briefly states the main points of a piece of writing. A summary of this first paragraph might be (you will want to use your own words, and the summary should be no more than one sentence): Orwell describes a helpless response to the degradation of the English language that is based on the widespread belief that languages cannot be shaped or controlled. 

A paraphrase would retell the paragraph in your own words. A paraphrase would be longer and talk in more detail about the paragraph than a summary. You could say something like the following, but, again, you will want to use your own wording: Orwell says that a common argument about language states that it is merely following collapsing social norms when it becomes debased. Most people, he argues, will shrug and say there is nothing we can do about improving language, just as we cannot bring back a quaint golden age of candles and horses and buggies. This helpless response to language comes from the underlying belief that language cannot be controlled by us.

You might go on to state that Orwell will refute this argument in the rest of his essay.

The in-text citation would normally be the author's last name and the number of the page from which the quote, paraphrase, or summary is from put in parentheses, after the quote, summary, or paraphrase. For example, if the quote were on page one, the citation would look like this "It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light" (Orwell 1). However, if the citation refers to an internet text with no page numbers, you would simply use (Orwell). If you used two or more works by Orwell, you would need to indicate which one, so you would use (Orwell, "Politics" 1) or (Orwell, "Politics").  The Owl Purdue guide to MLA, found online, offers more help. 

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