Engfish

That “Engfish” is not a typo.

A new semester will be starting this week in countless high schools and colleges. I’ve been thinking about the years I spent teaching English in a business school, a prison school, and a two-year college. Those were wonderful years, but it’s also true that I often felt frustrated about my students’ writing.

Those memories triggered thoughts about Ken Macrorie, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who despaired over the lifeless writing (he called it Engfish) that his students submitted every semester.

In a remarkable display of humility and honesty, he wrote a wonderful book (Uptaught, Hayden, 1970) that roundly placed the blame on…his teaching methods. Uptaught should be required reading for everyone who teaches English.

Or Engfish.

I’ve read more than my share of lifeless writing (and, alas, probably produced a good bit of it myself). The problem is not (surprisingly) weak language skills. I know that sounds crazy, but here’s what I’ve discovered again and again: Students produce wonderful papers if they have something to say.

And there’s the rub. What can an 18-year-old say that a middle-aged English instructor will find interesting?

My own solution was to create some controversy in my classrooms. My lower-level developmental classes studied scientific evidence about the Loch Ness Monster. Upper-level developmental students studied the Fall River Axe Murders (of Lizzie Borden fame). Sophisticated ideas, I learned, automatically generate sophisticated writing.

On the other hand, if you give students a weak topic, you’ll get weak writing back. It’s that simple.

What I really want to write about today, however, is Engfish: Expressions and ideas that immediately tip me off that I’m reading a weak paper.

#1: I would put in today’s society at the top of the list.

If this phrase has crept into something you’ve written, 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.

What are some solutions to the Engfish problem?

Macrorie is a big fan of freewriting – allowing students to write honestly and freely in order to find a topic that’s fresh and real. I’ve already mentioned another approach: Bringing stimulating materials to class – a case study, for example, that challenges students to dig deeper into a subject.

I once attended an English teachers’ workshop that offered a different strategy that has worked beautifully for my students: Ask them to write about their jobs. We English professors are often a pampered lot who forget what minimum-wage workplaces are really like. If you want to see some amazing papers, ask your students to describe a typical day at work. Or tell you about their boss.

But remind them first that you won’t be accepting any Engfish.

 

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