Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Informal and Formal Writing 03

Question: How are informal and formal writing different?

Answer: Informal writing is conversational. Formal writing aims for precise expression.

Today: What are some problems with informal writing?

While I have praised informal writing as reader- and writer-friendly, I must emphasize that the ultimate goal of communication in writing is achieving clear, precise meaning. The best example of formal expression in American history is Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”: Not a word is wasted. Every word counts. The words are precise and the meaning is clear.

The problem with most students in writing is learning to express themselves in formal English. They come to my classes writing as they speak—informally (I call it “speakwrite”)—and I need to show them how to write—and speak—formally.

In this and the following sessions, I want to demonstrate the problems with “speakwrite” or informal writing, the problems with using “there,” “get,” “it,” “thing,” and demonstrative pronouns (“this,” “that,” “these,” “those”) without clear antecedents.

The First Problem with “Speakwrite” or informal writing: Repetition.
All of these expressions are repeated unnecessarily. Unnecessary repetition is one of the characteristics of people who do not write carefully. People who do not write carefully usually have problems expressing their ideas clearly. I have seen the pronoun “it” repeated as many as fifteen times in a single, moderately sized paragraph. With so many repetitions, the reader has difficulty following the meaning of "it."

Specific problems with “There.”
Beginning a sentence with the expletive “There” is both a problem in coherence and in subject/verb agreement. Coherence (or “flow of thought”) can be improved when “There” is replaced by the actual subject of the sentence.

Begins with "There":There are seven vegetables in this salad.”
Begins with the subject:This salad is a combination of seven vegetables.”

Beginning a sentence with “There” can also create a subject/verb agreement problem:

Subject/verb problem: “There’s seven vegetables in this salad.”
Corrected: “There are seven vegetables in this salad.”
Better: “This salad is a combination of seven vegetables.”

Although beginning sentences with “There” helps to make writing more conversational, student writers tend to overuse the word, and I, therefore, discourage them from beginning sentences with “There” altogether. Eliminating the word "There" at the beginning of sentences will increase precision and "flow" significantly.

Tomorrow: What are the problems with “get,” “it,” “thing”?

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