Engfish (Antiwriting)

In the Engfish paragraphs of the student themes," said Ken Macrorie, "the words almost never speak to each other, and when they do, they say only 'Blah'"
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Engfish is a highly pejorative term for dull, stilted, and lifeless prose.

The term Engfish was introduced by composition specialist Ken Macrorie to characterize the "bloated, pretentious language . . . in the students' themes, in the textbooks on writing, in the professors' and administrators' communications to each other. A feel-nothing, say-nothing language, dead like Latin, devoid of the rhythms of contemporary speech" (Uptaught, 1970).

According to Macrorie, one antidote to Engfish is freewriting.

Engfish is related to the kind of prose that Jasper Neel has called antiwriting—"writing whose only purpose is to demonstrate mastery of the rules of writing."

Commentary on 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 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 that the impression was impressive."

(Ken Macrorie, Telling Writing, 3rd ed. Hayden, 1981)  

Antidotes to Engfish: Freewriting and Helping Circles

"The now universally familiar technique of freewriting arose from [Ken] Macrorie's frustration. By 1964, he had become so exasperated with the stilted Engfish of student papers that he told his students to 'go home and write anything that comes to your mind. Don't stop. Write for ten minutes or till you've filled a whole page' (Uptaught 20). He began experimenting with the method he called 'writing freely.' Gradually, the students' papers began to improve and flashes of life started to appear in their prose. He believed he had found a teaching method that helped students bypass Engfish and find their authentic voices. . . .

"The antidote Macrorie advocates for Engfish is 'truthtelling.' Through writing freely and the honest response of their peers, students break through their proclivity for Engfish and can discover their authentic voice—the source of truthtelling.

The authentic voice objectifies the writer's experience, allowing a reader to 'live it vicariously and a writer [to] re-experience it' (Telling Writing, 286). 

(Irene Ward, Literacy, Ideology, and Dialogue: Towards a Dialogic Pedagogy. State University of New York Press, 1994)

The Truthtelling Voice as an Alternative to Engfish

"The typical example of Engfish is standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style and form of their professors. 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)


"I am not writing. I hold no position. I have nothing at all to do with discovery, communication, or persuasion. I care nothing about the truth. What I am is an essay. I announce my beginning, my parts, my ending, and the links between them. I announce myself as sentences correctly punctuated and words correctly spelled."

(Jasper Neel, Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988)

Further Reading

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Nordquist, Richard. "Engfish (Antiwriting)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/engfish-antiwriting-term-1690596. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 21). Engfish (Antiwriting). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/engfish-antiwriting-term-1690596 Nordquist, Richard. "Engfish (Antiwriting)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/engfish-antiwriting-term-1690596 (accessed March 18, 2018).