What is “Engfish”?

It is dull, stilted, and lifeless prose.

The term “Engfish” was introduced by composition specialist Ken Macrorie [in his book Uptaught (1970)] to characterize the “bloated, pretentious language … in the students’ themes, in the textbooks on writing, in the professors’ and administrators’ communications to each other. It is feel-nothing, say-nothing language, dead like Latin, devoid of the rhythms of contemporary speech.”

The typical example of Engfish is standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style of their professors (which is often dull and lifeless). By contrast, writing with voice has life because it’s ostensibly connected to a real speaker—the student writer herself. Here’s what Ken Macrorie said about a particular student paper that has voice:

In that paper, a truthtelling voice speaks, and its rhythms rush and build like the human mind traveling at high speed. Rhythm, rhythm, the best writing depends so much upon it. But as in dancing, you can’t get rhythm by giving yourself directions. You must feel the music and let your body take its instructions. Classrooms aren’t usually rhythmic places.

The “truthtelling voice” is the authentic one.

Irene L. Clark, Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.
Found in: Colson, Michael. “Truth Tableaux.” What Is ‘Engfish’, 25 Jan. 2013, truthtableaux.com/2013/01/25/ what-is-engfish/.


Ken Macrorie

A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as "humanitary," which have a paralysis in their tails.
—Henry Thoreau

The Poison Fish

One day a college student stopped a professor in the hall and said, "I have this terrible instructor who says I can’t write. Therefore, I shouldn’t teach English. He really grinds me. In another class I’ve been reading James Joyce, so I wrote this little comment on the instructor in Joyce’s style. Do you think I should submit it to The Review?"

The professor looked at the lines she had written about her instructor:

… the stridents in his glass lisdyke him immensely. Day each that we tumble into the glass he sez to mee, "Eets too badly that you someday fright preach Engfish."

and he knew the girl had found a name for the phony, pretentious language of the schools—Engfish.

Most English teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it, so they put down those bloody correction marks in the margins. When the students see them, they think they mean the teacher doesn’t care what students write, only how they punctuate and spell. So they give him Engfish. He calls the assignments by their traditional names—themes. The students know theme writers seldom put down anything that counts for them. No one outside school ever writes anything called themes. Apparently they are teachers’ exercises, not really a kind of communication. On the first assignment in a college class a student begins his theme like this:

I went downtown today for the first time. When I got there I was completely astonished by the hustle and the bustle that was going on. My first impression of the downtown area was quite impressive.

Beautiful Engfish. The writer said not simply that he was astonished, but completely astonished, as if the word astonished had no force of its own. The student reported (pretended would be a truer word) to have observed hustle and bustle, and then explained in true Engfish that the hustle and bustle was going on. He managed to work in the academic word area, and finished by saying the impression was impressive.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The teacher does not want Engfish, but gets it. Discouraged, he often tries a different tack. Asks the boys to write about sports, maybe. Then they will drop Engfish because they care about what they are saying. One boy starts his theme like this:

The co-captains of the respective teams are going out to the middle of the field for the toss of the coin.

Engfish again. Only two teams play in a football game and there could be no reason in that sentence for using the word respective. But it was the sort of word the boy thought Engfish teachers wanted.

With all that fish smell permeating the room, the teacher feels queasy. He tries other ways of getting rid of Engfish. He asks the students to keep a personal journal. Maybe if they talk about themselves they will find their natural voices. The next day one of the girls turns in a journal containing this entry:

It is hard to realize just how much you miss someone until you are away from this person. It seems that the time you are away from this person is wasted. You seem to wait and wait till you can see this person again. Then when the time comes, it passes far too quickly.

Another kind of Engfish—not fancy, academic language, but simple everyday words that say nothing because they keep all the girl’s experience private. Anyone else reading that entry would forget it instantly because neither the writer nor the person written about come alive. A year later the sentence would mean almost nothing even to the writer.

A teacher becomes fed up with writing like that. He doesn’t see that most of the signals in the school are telling students to write Engfish. Even the textbook begins with an Engfish sentence, and surely it should be a model of writing for students. Its first sentence is:

If you are a student who desires assistance in order to write effectively and fluently, then this textbook is written for you.

Pure Engfish undefiled, a tongue never spoken outside the walls. No student would stop another on campus and say, "I desire assistance locating Sangren Hall," or "Will you show me the most effective way to the bus stop?" Naturally the student thinks that the textbook is a model of the language the teacher wants, so she gives that language to him.

Students thoroughly trained in Engfish are hard put to find their natural voices in the classroom. They have left them out in the hall. Much earlier in life, though, they occasionally have written sharply and truly, as this third-grader did:

I can play huhwayun music on my gettar. It is like when grandma took a sick spell. Now she was shut up tight as a jar with a lid on. She gave a scream. When she gave that scream it was high. But it got lower and lower. Huhwayun music sounds something like that when she was getting lower.

From that passage a reader learns what "huhwayun" music sounds like.

Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.
—Frederick Nietzsche

The difference between the college students’ writing and the third-grade child’s is simple: One is dead, the other alive. In the child’s comments the words speak to each other—high speaks to lower. And the ideas and things speak to each other—the Hawaiian guitar is like grandmother, and when she was sick it was like a jar with a lid on. The whole passage speaks to the reader. It is not pretentious. It is not phony. It is not private. In the Engfish paragraphs of the student themes the words almost never speak to each other, and when they do, they say only "Blah."

College students were once third-graders and occasionally wrote like that. Where did they lose that skill? Why?

They spent too many hours in school mastering Engfish and reading cues from teacher and textbook that suggested it is the official language of the school. In it the student cannot express truths that count for him. He learns a language that prevents him from working toward truths, and then he tell lies.

In this empty circle teacher and student wander around boring each other. But there is a way out.

This article is the first chapter of Ken Macrorie’s book, Telling Writing.

You Know It When You Smell It

Real Examples of Engfish

The most evident purpose of the collegiate experience is to broaden the scope of education while making it especially relevant to a field of study. I sense the crying need to systemize [sic] the great chaotic whirlpool of information into the universal outlook of college training and impending need to study seriously my chosen field of work. I expect college to carry me beyond education to the developing of a technique of study.

High school has encompassed many memorable, yet trying times.

[Response: “So has working in the fertilizer plant.”]

Unquestionably the textbook has played a very important role in the development of American schools—and I believe it will continue to play an important role.

[Response: “So have spitballs”]

Throughout the book Indian Killer, author Sherman Alexie uses multiple writer’s crafts to sculpt a well constructed novel. He wastes no time in using some of these literary techniques, for in the first chapter, entitled “Mythology”, he packs it full of clever subtleties that augment the novel’s experience. Alexie’s use of syntax, symbolism, and imagery enhance the reader’s understanding of the hostile environment John Smith is born into.

Translation: “From the way the author structures his sentences in “Mythology”, it is evident that John Smith will have to face a world that is harsh and frantic. The first paragraph reads in a staccato fashion, with rapid, short sentences providing graphic details”

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote many influential plays and other works of literature, but perhaps the most well-known is his nihilistic commentary on the human condition, Waiting for Godot. Throughout the play, Beckett uses repetition of certain phrases, actions, and stage directions to reinforce important concepts. In The Modern Language Review, January 1995 edition, N.F. Lowe writes, “The structure of the play [Waiting for Godot] constantly involves such formal repetitions of themes and actions, where the ‘action replay’ adds a new nuance of meaning.”

This is Engfish quoting the Engfish. The student’s voice has been kidnapped. A trove of empty phrases:

Symptoms of Engfish

We need to understand when we are writing Engfish:

For the #1 spot I nominate “in today’s society.” (“Since the beginning of time…” is a good specimen too).

If this phrase has crept into your paper, then crumple it up, find a new topic, and start over. In today’s society is a dead giveaway that you don’t have anything provocative to say.

#2: ____________ (fill in a name) was born in ___________________.

If that’s the most interesting thing you can come up with to kick off your paper, you too need to start over.

#3: Any generalization about most people or everyone or all of us. (Everyone knows what love feels like. Money is important to all of us. Most people like to travel.) If the idea, experience, or emotion you’re discussing is that commonplace, it’s unlikely to be interesting.

Colson, Michael. “Truth Tableaux.” What Is ‘Engfish’, 25 Jan. 2013, truthtableaux.com/2013/01/25/ what-is-engfish/.