It looks like English but stinks like a fish…it must be Engfish

When I teach expository writing, there’s a window in the semester – usually starting around week 7 or so, where it fits most organically – during which I have students read and react to a few essays that discuss good writing – and especially good academic writing – from a slightly different perspective: is it clear and readable, or it just a bunch of pretentious nonsense?

Of course, I have them read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. It’s the classic in the field, and although it never uses the phrase “bad academic English” that’s exactly what he’s talking about: over-written prose that obscures the writer’s ability to communicate with the audience. His rules (he offers six) for producing good writing are hard to argue with, and even though he wrote that in 1946, little has changed.

One thing that makes this clear is a second essay that I give students, Ken Macrorie’s The Poison Fish, first published in 1970. Macrorie recounts an experience with a student who vented her frustrations with the style expected by one of her instructors by turning it into a parody, using wordplay reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses. In it, she coined the word “Engfish” to describe this stilted artificial kind of writing. Macrorie recognized the value of the word immediately. “Engfish” is very useful shorthand for a vareity of ills that push a piece of writing away from being clear and useful.

Most people, even most writers, aren’t familiar with this concept (“Engfish“). Fortunately, many (but far from all) teachers of composition are. It’s too bad, though, that more of them don’t explicitly teach their students what Engfish is, as well as strategies to avoid it.

What is Engfish, exactly? According to Macrorie, it’s writing that ultimately accomplishes nothing. It’s merely “exercises, not really a kind of communication.” It is lacking in clarity, and often has no meaning. Long, academic words are used when simple, common ones should be. Unnecessary modifiers abound, while true feeling, emotion, and life itself are almost entirely absent from the page. The natural voice of the writer – the student – has been lost. If these complaints remind you of Orwell, it’s no surprise – they were both looking at similar problems.

Macrorie blamed the problem on the way English and writing, in all aspects (spelling, grammar, composition, etc.) were taught in US schools; that the fault was with the textbooks, the instructors, and the teaching methods, all of which focused too heavily on rote correction and on the need to produce certain written artifacts in certain rigid forms, regardless of the cost in creativity or liveliness. It’s a system, as he saw it, that’s just plain awful for all involved: students don’t learn well, and then learn to produce what they think teachers want, while teachers suffer through horrible, lifeless writing that is the result of the way they and their colleagues teach. No one wins. Despite great efforts in the four decades since Macrorie pointed this out, it’s still a struggle, uphill, every day, to teach students to write clearly and energetically first, and worry about the details of spelling, grammar, and punctuation second.

Once you’ve seen – or smelled – Engfish, you learn to see it everywhere. You notice redundancies more quickly, spot obscuring modifiers more frequently, and some days it’s hard to block the smell of the meaningless doublespeak festering all around you. Recognizing Engfish in print makes you a better reader, able to sift through the bullshit more critically. Understanding what Engfish is makes you a better writer (or editor): you see the weak verbs, the repetitive adjectives, and the just-plain-meaningless phrases more easily. Like every other skill, you have to work at it all the time, and you’ll never be perfect. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Although Orwell and Macrorie (and Elmore Leonard, for that matter, whose list of 10 writing rules first appeared in 2001) are worth reading and provide valuable suggestions for any writer willing to pay attention, I’ve noticed that something has changed, and within just the past few years. I’ve used both essays most semesters for as long as I’ve taught this class. Results with Orwell have always been mixed – there are students who clearly don’t read it, or who only read the first page or three, or who skim, or who fail to get the obvious message (the ‘rules’ are highlighted at the end…you have to be very lazy not to notice them).

But there had always been a majority – sometimes close to 100% of the class – who ‘got it.’ Sadly, over the past two or three semesters, I’ve noticed that even among the students who ‘get it,’ attention span – the simple ability for them to actually sit down and read this terribly long essay (8 full pages!) has dropped precipitously. Even in a weak semester, I’ve been able to count on half of the students making it through (I can judge how far they get and how deeply they read because this is an annotation assignment). If the past couple semesters are an indicator, then expecting any more than 20% of students to read beyond the first three pages of any assignment is wishful thinking. In fact, if the results of The Citation Project are to be believed, that’s just about right: 70% of all student generated citations were from the first or second page of cited sources. [Full disclosure: final essays from several of my writing sections were submitted as potential samples for this study; I have no idea if any were actually used, because of the anonymous nature of the study. I like to think that my students were better than average in terms of the results, because of the emphasis I place on proper citation and documentation of sources…but I know better than to kid myself on this point.]

Even with this short attention span, at least I can still rely on students to read most of Macrorie – at only three pages, it’s next to impossible for a student to come up with a good excuse for why he hasn’t read it. The style and vocabulary are easier to handle than Orwell, too. Accuse me of dumbing things down, if you must, but I think the better way to look at this is to hold the Engfish lens up to Orwell and Macrorie themselves. Even Orwell admitted that his essay was probably guilty of the same sins he criticized others for. By the standards of 2012’s students, he’s creeping toward unreadable.

It’s of course worth noting that many people still associate confusing and impenetrable prose with intelligence, and confusing writing is taken as a sign of import even among many academics who should know better. David Hakes revealed in 2009 that he had deliberately made an article more difficult to read in order to have it accepted by an academic journal (which he politely declined to name). He and his co-author (both economists) began with a paper that contained six equations and was written to be understood by a general audience. After being rejected by several publications and suspecting that they had ‘erred’ by making their argument too clear, they set to work; in the end, “the resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions.” It was accepted by the first journal it was submitted to. As Hakes writes, “Even for mathematicians, the paper may no longer pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it. I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex.”

As he puts it, “I wrote a paper to impress, rather than inform–a violation of my most closely held beliefs regarding the intent of research.” It is very, very unfortunate that more academics don’t share these same beliefs, or hold them so closely. Until that transition occurs – and it might never happen – all of us will continue to fight with Engfish, as readers and writers, every time we turn the page.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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8 Responses to It looks like English but stinks like a fish…it must be Engfish

  1. Pam Phillips says:

    It’s funny that you never see anyone defending academic writing. Perhaps it once swam like a fish through the sea of meaning, but now only the dead weight of its momentum keeps it going. Engfish, indeed.

    As for examples of entertaining, informative exposition, have you looked into the works of Mary Roach, Mark Kurlansky, or John McPhee?


    • “No,” “nope,” and “afraid not.” I’ll have to look them up.
      Actually, I defend academic writing all the time. It’s *bad* academic writing that’s the problem.
      Good academic writing is what students should be / are supposed to be taught in expository writing and composition classes. I see a fair amount of it by the end of most semesters (sometimes not as much as I’d hope).
      There’s all kinds of good academic writing out there. A good example would be pretty much any abstract from Science (the journal) – I’ve sometimes just grabbed random articles from random issues as examples for class, and they’re always clear and readable (excluding knowledge of technical terminology).
      Another excellent defense of good academic writing (and a useful how-to guide) would be the frequently maligned “They Say/I Say” by Graff and Birkenstein. Every college student should use it.
      …also, I like the way you extended the fish metaphor…


  2. Pam Phillips says:

    The authors I mentioned write for a general audience. For Mary Roach, I would suggest PACKING FOR MARS, about the messy business of putting humans into space. I found SALT by Mark Kurlansky fascinating. COD is better known, but I haven’t read it yet. John McPhee wrote a series of classic works about geology and the people who live on it. There’s a beautifully written passage in BASIN AND RANGE about ranchers in Wyoming.
    Glad you liked the metaphor.


    • Thanks, Pam. Actually, I know all three of those books (but haven’t read any of them, except small excerpts). Didn’t recognize the authors’ names. “Packing for Mars” is on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.


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  4. Aimee says:

    I’ve written for television for nearly 20 years. I had to break my dyed-in-the-wool Engfish habits in a hurry. In a :30 second spot, there is no TIME for that nonsense. I get “scripts” from outside entities (business clients who believe they can write, ad agencies who need to justify their existence, etc) that are loaded with Engfish. I clean it up and they usually don’t even notice what has happened that made it better (aside from the fact that the script can now be read, comfortably, in under :30 seconds).

    Years ago, one of my undergrad research papers was published in my University’s annual “Arts & Letters” literary review. I kept a copy of that little publication (“Look! My name! In print!”). A few months ago, while cleaning, I found it. It was an Engfish bonanza. Frankly, the content was bullsh*t, but someone, somewhere, must have thought throwing around 50-cent words made it a thing of quality. Wow.


    • Thanks for that, Aimee. I think it’s actually true that writing in unreadable Engfish is a necessary step in the evolution of every writer. You’ve got to learn it be able to recognize it and kill it. How well and how thoroughly people get past that phase and come to understand the problem might be part of what determines just how good any writer can become. Even at this stage of my life, I’ll still occasionally use some word or construction that I’ve been using for years and suddenly realize “holy cats, that’s total Engfish bullshit!” You’ve got to be constantly alert, and constantly work to improve what stays on the page.


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