A British poet, academic, and literary critic, he is perhaps best known for Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930. His other notable works include Some Versions of Pastoral, The Structure of Complex Words, and Milton's God.
He was a scholarship student at Magdalene College, Cambridge until allegations of sexual relations with a young woman ended his university career.
He taught in China, Japan, the United States, and England.
He was the child of Laura Mickelthwait Empson and Arthur Reginald Empson.
He became friends with George Orwell in 1941, while both men were working for the foreign broadcasts department of the BBC.