In an ideal world, written English would be equally easily understood by both the man on the street and/or a professor of jurisprudence. But – as well as transmitting information – people use language to include or to exclude potential members of their own sub-group.
To illustrate: from the lowliest clerk to a High Court judge, legalese tags the brother- and sister-hood of the Law. Doctors use medical language to protect patients from too much information about their conditions. Academics mark out the territory of their expertise through the words they use. And, whenever you start a new job, you have one hundred days to learn the in-phrases that will allow you to join the groups you need to join. Once in, you may be able to change these phrases, but, first, you need to add them to your repertoire and deploy them!
People use written English in the same way. Switching styles can be a challenge. You may, for example, be required to write in academic English for a learned journal or you may choose to use conversational English for a weblog. And in professional communication, the trick as ever lies in choosing the right style for the right audience.
Here, focusing on two styles – academic and conversational – are some useful guidelines:
Essay structure and the chronological parable
You may be asked to write a discussion article in the form of a debate. So – in good Ciceronian Style – you state the topic, set out the arguments for and against and draw your conclusion. But the formula for a blog entry is much simpler. Adopting the commonsensical Aristotelian approach, you tell a story- usually with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Word choice in academic English
Writing academic English, you’ll probably favour:
- formal over informal words, choosing Latinate terms (such as ‘select’) over more easily absorbed common terms (such as ‘pick’).
- impersonal over a personal tone. Academics adopt impersonal rather than personal pronouns such as the Narrative ‘I’. It sounds more erudite. But your statements will be more tentative as a result (eg.’It is considered that… ‘ as opposed to ˜I think… ‘)
- the use of the passive over the active voice. This is another device for distancing the writer and/or the reader from the activity – such as ˜Housing was demolished by bombs” instead of ˜Bombs destroyed the houses.”
- the use of technical terms. These assume a level of knowledge, making members of the audience/readership part of a select group and excluding the rest.
But, to achieve a conversational tone, you would do well to adopt the alternatives:
- informal words
- personal pronouns
- active voice
- And avoid technical terms at all costs!
Academic English favours complex Latinate structures, – including subordinate clause and phrase. This ensures optimal amounts of information are packed into a sentence. As a result, an academic sentence may run to over 25 words. High quality journalism deploys sentences of up to about 18 words and written advertising favours sentences of about 14 words long. But dialogue, naturally, may use 1-word structures. And the conversational English used in blogs represents the sentence patterns and structures of speech.
References vs. anecdote
Academic writing – in putting forward arguments to support a thesis – cites references as evidence. Conversational English adds “flavour” by offering stories and anecdotes to support a point. Journalism comes anywhere in between – depending on the audience.
As demonstrated here, switching styles is a form of translation. And practice makes perfect. Familiarise yourself with the patterns of each style you need. You’ll then be able to recognise when your chosen style falters and your ‘translation’ fails.