In this essay, Orwell focuses on a major theme that cuts across much of his writing: that the sloppy and inaccurate use of language leads to sloppy and inaccurate thought. This, in turn, leads to a political situation in which the common people are ill-served by their politicians, who get away with using empty phrases and meaningless jargon instead of taking clear steps to improve people's lives.
Clear and precise language is the key to clear and precise thought. As Orwell states, the English language can be
ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
As he makes clear in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, language can be easily twisted to justify tyranny and dumbed down to meaninglessness if people aren't careful. He states his fear that what he perceives as a decline in simple, easy-to-understand, and meaningful English will lead to problems. In his essay, he points to the kind of meaningless talk that often passes for legitimate political discourse:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy, the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.
Orwell helps makes his point by examining the work of five writers. These are Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, and Paul Goodman, as well as a communist pamphlet and a letter writer to a newspaper. For example, he quotes the communist pamphlet:
All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.
The above quote breaks many of the rules of clear writing and manages by using empty jargon ("fascist captains," "bestial horror," "rising tide") and long words (incendiarism, chauvinism) to say nothing. This is exactly the kind of writing we want to avoid. A statement that says something meaningful would state who these fascists and best people are—name their names—and specifically state what "acts" in particular they had done.
At the end of the essay, Orwell offers some rules or guidelines to help produce clear, honest prose. These include avoiding cliches (overused comparisons), using short words rather than long words wherever possible, and getting rid of unneeded words. He also emphasizes the importance of using the active voice, which means saying who exactly said or did something: "The prime minister raised taxes" is far preferable to the passive "taxes were raised." He also advises staying away from foreign words and jargon.