He asserted contemporary English prose causes and affects foolish thoughts and dishonest politics. "Vagueness and sheer incompetence" were the "most marked characteristic" of contemporary English prose, and especially of the political writing of his day. Orwell criticizes contemporary writers' preference of abstract words over concrete ones, and suggests they impair precise thought. He notes insincerity is the enemy of clear prose, and vague political writing is a defence of indefensible values. He contends vague expressions cause ugly writing and conceal a writer's thoughts from himself and others. As a writer, George Orwell "believed he was [morally] bound to give as much of himself to his writing as he could" and so "drove himself relentlessly" to avoid the kind of bad writing he describes in the essay.
Orwell asserted the English language was declining, but the decline was reversible. He cites five contemporary examples of bad writing, criticizing them for "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision". "Politics and the English Language" describes the tricks of his contemporaries in avoiding the work and thought required for composing clear prose: overused, "dying" metaphors, "operators or false verbal limbs" used in place of simple verbs, and pretentious diction and meaningless words.
"Politics and the English Language" was originally published in the April 1946 issue of the journal Horizon. It was written when Animal Farm had just been completed, and Nineteen Eighty-Four was a preliminary manuscript; a time of critical and commercial literary success for Orwell. In the English-speaking world, this essay often is assigned reading in introductory writing courses and in Orwell's authorized biography, Michael Sheldon calls it "his most influential essay."