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.
The themes in Politics and the English Language anticipate Orwell's development of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sheldon calls Newspeak, "the perfect language for a society of bad writers [like those Orwell describes in Politics and the English Language] because it reduces the number of choices available to them." Picking up on themes Orwell began exploring in this essay, Newspeak first corrupts writers morally, then politically, "since it allows writers to cheat themselves and their readers with ready-made prose".
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
into "modern English of the worst sort,"
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
One of Orwell's instructors at St Cyprian's School, Mrs. Cicely Wilkes, had used the same method to illustrate good writing to her students. She would use simple passages from the King James Bible and then "translate" them into poor English to show the clarity and brilliance of the original.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- 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.
John Rodden claims, given much of Orwell's work was polemical, he sometimes violated these rules and Orwell himself concedes he has no doubt violated some of them in the very essay in which they were included.
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.