Mount Mary College

English Department

2900 North Menomonee River Parkway

Milwaukee, WI  53222

(414) 258-4810, ext. 395




CXC - Communication Across the Campus

and/or Online College Composition

Engfish ...


The following article comes from Ken Macrorie's book, Telling Writing, one of the best books on composition I've ever read (if you have time, buy it or get it from the library).  Throughout the semester I'll be referring to the term, "Engfish," so read this article carefully.


    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

    Chapter 1 - 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 immersely. 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 teacher's 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 astonishedhad 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 is 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 simply 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 the 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 lost 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.

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