Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Informal and Formal Expression 04

Question: How do informal and formal expression differ?

Answer: Informal expression is conversational. The characteristics of conversational writing are using the “I” and/or “you” point of view; general words like “there,” “it,” “get,” “thing” and the demonstrative pronouns (“this,” “that,” “these” “those”) without clear antecedents, needless repetition, and contractions. Formal expression eliminates the preceding characteristics of conversation, uses the third-person point of view and aims at precise and clear meaning.

Yesterday, I suggested that beginning sentences with the word “There” was often repetitious, less direct than using the actual subject of the sentence and likely to result in a grammatical, subject/verb agreement problem.

Today: The problems with “it,” “thing,” “get” include the tendency to needless repetition and distracting the reader because the exact meaning is not clear.

Note: I am again using “idiot sentences,” sentences that clearly illustrate the solutions to problems, although they are not very interesting ideas.

The Pronoun “It”
Needless repetition is a problem in coherence because the reader cannot follow the changes in meaning of the various uses of “it.” The pronoun “it,” while a perfectly good pronoun when used sparingly, is frequently repeated unnecessarily by students, creating problems in clear reference as well as lack of precision. One of my college students used “it” 50 times in a five-paragraph composition.

Reference problem: “He had no idea what it contained.” Clear reference: “He had no idea what the package contained.”

Problem with repetition: “He bought it, didn’t like it, and returned it to the store from which he had bought it.”
Clear reference: “He bought the 13-inch TV set, disliked the small screen and blurry picture, and returned what he considered to be defective merchandise to the store from which he purchased it.”

In the second case, the writer eliminated three uses of the word “it,” and reserved the final “it” for the original purpose of pronouns—avoiding, in this case, the needless repetition of the word “TV.” The effect of eliminating the repeated use of “it” is to increase precision in expression and enable the reader to follow the flow of thought.

The Noun “Thing.”
“Thing” is another word too frequently used by student writers, resulting in a lack of precision and uncertainty as to what “thing” refers to.

Less precise:There was not a thing I could do as he began to slip through the ice.”
More precise: “I watched helplessly as he began to slip through the ice.”

This writer eliminated “There” as well as the noun “thing” and achieves greater precision in expression.

The Verb “Get.”
“Get,” with its many forms (“getting,” “got”) is probably the champion of words frequently repeated by student writers. My advice to students when they use the same word two or more times is to try three strategies:

1. Simply drop one of the repeated words; see if the sentence makes sense without it.

2. Find a synonym; this strategy sometimes improves precision in word choice.

3. But the third method, even if it requires some extra work, is usually the best for eliminating needlessly repeated words: rearrange the sentence to avoid using a word a second or third time in the same or adjoining sentences.

Needless repetition: “He was getting used to accepting how tall he was getting.”
No repetition: “He had become resigned to growing taller than everyone else.”

Tomorrow: The problems with demonstrative pronouns (“this,” “that,” “these,” those”) without clear antecedents. Final thoughts on the use of informal and/or formal expression.

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