In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay on the pitfalls of English prose, describing what he considered to be the common mistakes made in modern writing. Politics and the English Language identified dead metaphors, over-used phrases, and vague diction as habits to be eliminated from writing, for they tire the reader, confuse the meaning, and destroy the specifics of one’s intended message. Whether purposeful or accidental, such errors have not yet been eliminated from the English language: 60 years later we still make the same mistakes, albeit in slightly different forms. While most writers keep their prose admirably clear of such obstructions, passive, vacuous, and needlessly complex sentences cloak the modern world of bureaucracy and politics in a haze of pretentiously irrelevant verbosity.
Take the first of Orwell’s charges: the dying metaphor. Some of his examples of have now faded from use, like “ring the charges on” or “take up the cudgels for.” After all, few people fight with cudgels nowadays. However, some of these phrases remain in circulation. “Toe the line” has become embedded in our vocabulary to the extent that it fails to arouse any trace of visual imagery. One has only to examine any political statement to encounter these tired phrases being trotted out once again for display. We speak of “cutting off ties” with other nations, or refer to America as “a shining beacon” of democracy, and no one thinks anew. The problem of dying metaphors hasn’t gone away, but merely shifted to a new collection of unimaginative analogies.
Similarly, the reliance on verbal false limbs and the passive voice has not diminished with time: these appear with frequency in political, bureaucratic, and scientific writing. Compounding simple verbs and nouns produces the illusion of objectivity and sophistication while obscuring the real facts, as this excerpt from the FBI’s about web page demonstrates: