Column: Not smart to go Engfishing


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

“This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
― Winston S. Churchill

We have probably all written a version of this essay at some point in high school or college: You’ve read the assigned book (OK, “skimmed” is probably more accurate) and there’s a five-page essay due tomorrow. Well, technically it’s due today because it’s 2 a.m. and your paper’s due at 9 a.m. It’s time to “fill the space,” as they say in university circles. You’ve nudged the margins to make them bigger. You’re using Courier New because it takes up more space on the page. Now, it’s time to make your words longer and more intelligent-sounding so you can squeak out a B-minus on this bad boy. You consult your thesaurus for every third word.

Somehow, we learn a certain form of writing an essay or paper that ends up resembling everyone else’s papers, or — even worse — an imitation of our professor’s speech patterns. The result is a flowery, academic-sounding, five-page whopper of a nothingburger. You swap out the word “use” for “utilize” or “employ.” You go to great lengths in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, forcing your words to twist and turn into stuffy syntax riddles. You’re verbose to the point of long-windedness.

There’s a term for this: Engfish. It’s when we use contrived language for the sake of sounding smart. We use Engfish in our writing and in conversations. By puffing up our discourse, we end up obscuring our intended message.

In a 1946 article entitled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell suggested six rules for combatting our tendency to write in this way:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I’m with Orwell on this one. It’s not bad to sound smart; I’m suggesting the best way to communicate is by putting your thesaurus away and saying what you mean to say. Don’t sugarcoat it; don’t even coat it at all. Just give them the naked, unvarnished truth. Do this and your communication will be strong and effective.