Sometimes you try to write or sign something with a ball pen on paper, but because the pen malfunctions (e.g. because it is running out of ink, or has dry ink), part of the line is drawn very thinly or discontinuously, sometimes leaving just a scratch on paper. How do you call this effect (or pen's condition/behavior) in English?

Also, when signing an important document with a pen, sometimes you try first to draw a few lines or curves on a separate discardable sheet of paper, either to ensure that the pen is not malfunctioning, or to help it to restore its function. What is the English verb for this action?

  • 3
    A minor correction. In English, they say "What do you call.." instead of "How do you call.." Oct 26, 2018 at 16:55

2 Answers 2


A pen can be said to be scratchy. A fountain pen. But really any ink pen (ballpoint pen aka biro in BrE or even a felt-tipped pen (aka felt tip pen).

It makes scratchy lines when you try to write with it. It flows unevenly.

Fountain pens float effortlessly over the paper when everything is working as it should. That is one of the reasons why people who prefer fountain pens really like them. But they can be difficult when something is not as it should be. They can be scratchy. Ink flows poorly or not at all. And, they may put out too much ink, even in the form of a sudden blob of ink that runs over a document and onto clothing. These problems are not inherent to all fountain pens, but occur in pens needing a little tender care to keep them in sound working condition.

fountain pens

Well, to see if ink is flowing properly, you test the pen by writing. Or: you try it out.


You could also say that the pen was balky.

I can't write with this balky pen.

We normally call testing things like that "a dry run" but that phrase doesn't really work with an ink pen :)

  • Reason for the downvote please. Oct 27, 2018 at 18:36
  • I did not downvote. I have only heard this used for animals - usually horses. It's a little-known word and most people wouldn't associate it with a pen. horseandrider.com/horse-health-care/fixing-balking-horse Dec 30, 2020 at 11:02
  • "Little known" is a subjective assessment. "Holding a bag of beets and onions in his left hand, attempting to sign a credit-card receipt with a balky red ballpoint on a too-high counter dappled with fish slime, his “signature” resembled a slapped and splatted mosquito carcass. The merchant accepted it without looking." (From an article in the Washington Post article dated Oct 24, 1013. washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/… )
    – Tim
    Dec 31, 2020 at 13:05

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