Friday, July 20, 2007

Informal and Formal Writing 05

Question: What are the differences between informal and formal expression?

Answer: Informal writing is conversational writing, characterized by needless repetition, contractions, general words, lack of clear reference and the “I” and/or “you” point of view.

Today: The problem with demonstrative pronouns—“this,” “that,” “these,” “those” without clear reference.

The demonstrative pronouns, “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” create problems in coherence when what they refer to is not clear. Usually demonstrative pronouns are found in the expressions “This is….” “That is….” “These are….” and “Those were….”

Antecedent not clear: “He had been playing ball for ten years. This has helped him learn the strategy of the game.

Clear antecedent: “He had been playing ball for ten years. This experience has helped him learn the strategy of the game.”

Without the word “experience,” at the very least, the reader has to fill in the obvious, that it was his "playing ball for ten years" that helped him learn the strategy of the game. As brief a time as it takes to make that connection, the reader is still interrupted and distracted in order to do so. Whenever possible, try not to let “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” as demonstrative pronouns dangle unattached in your sentences. What is the antecedent? Or, to what do “this,” “that,” “these” and “those” refer? Repeating the antecedent or using a synonym after the “dangling” demonstrative pronoun will make your sentences flow smoothly.

Note: What about “...that it was his experience that helped…” in the first sentence of your previous paragraph? The use of “that” in these examples is not as a demonstrative pronoun, but as a relative pronoun, or as a conjunction before subordinate clauses. (A clause has a subject and verb, "...that it was..." and "...that helped...." I’m afraid I’m going to have to resort to teaching some grammar.)

To sum up:

What is the point of this discussion of formal and informal writing? Certain situations require formal writing: writing assignments and research papers in school; formal reports in business situations; articles in professional journals, etc. Informal writing is reader-friendly, inviting the reader to join you in your writing. For example, I have now switched to informal expression. I want to talk directly to and engage my reader.

Keep in mind, too, that most published writing is a mixture of the two styles.

Which to use? The situation will dictate that requirement. Your boss will dictate that requirement. I have tried to show you in the last five blogs how to change your informal expression to formal expression, if you need to, by removing contractions, general words without clear reference and needless repetition and by changing the “I” and/or “you” points of view to third person.

To you as a reader, the conversational tone is engaging. Informal expression has considerable value to you as a writer. When you are not sure what you want to say, you can begin writing by using informal expression. Begin as if you are writing a letter, for example. However, if formal expression is required, then you will need to remove the contractions, general words, and needless repetition and then change the point of view to the third.

Beyond the conventional requirement of formal English in certain situations, why is formal expression desirable? As I read e-mails, I am quick to note people who are careful writers. They always strike me as people who have learned to write. The most significant characteristic is that they do not repeat words unnecessarily, one of the most frequent problems with inexperienced writers who tend to write as they speak.

The value of formal, precise, clear expression is perhaps best summed up in the following quotes from experts on writing:

Zinsser says that good writing “…has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next” (On Writing Well).

Herbert Spencer defined writing style as “that which requires the least effort of understanding” (Durant, The Story of Philosophy, “Herbert Spencer”).

James Thurber described his purpose for rewriting as “…a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless” (Cowley, ed. Writers at Work).

Formal expression accomplishes those goals. Formal expression communicates precisely and clearly, keeps the reader reading with the least effort of understanding and makes the finished piece of writing seem effortless.

All the best. RayS.

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