The language we use in writing is affected by various factors related to the communicative context (a university room or a bar) and to the writer’s intention.
In particular, when we write we have to consider:
Our stylistic choices obviously depend on all these variables.
ACTIVITY: Let us compare these two sample texts:
Sample text 1
Be back soon.
Sample text 2
Lessons will resume on April 13th.
What are the main differences?
Key to the activity
Sample text 1:
The absence of the subject and punctuation as well as the brevity of the message are typical of Post-it notes, informal messages which we’re all used to leaving with our friends and colleagues for personal information.
Sample text 2:
The abstract noun in the plural (lessons) and the rather formal verb resume are typical of notices, official informative messages used in institutional contexts (schools, police stations, public buildings, etc.).
ACTIVITY: Let us now compare two other sample texts:
Sample text 3
I shall return soon.
Sample text 4
Back to school next week.
Sample text 3 and sample text 4 correspond to sample text 1 and 2 respectively, but only at surface level. In fact they convey the same information with different emotional undertones: friendly in sample texts 1 and 4, and distant in sample texts 2 and 3.
In our own native language we are well aware of the extra connotative meanings associated with the words we use – whether for example it’s more appropriate to use un sacco di (loads of) or una grande quantità (a large number), sballo (have a ball) or divertimento (fun).
To improve our knowledge of a foreign language, we have to develop this linguistic awareness, the “feel” of a language.
“A particular style of language which is appropriate in certain circumstances. Murmuring to your lover, chatting with friends, writing an essay, being introduced to the Queen – all these require different registers of English.” (R. L. Trask, 1997, A Student’s Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London: Arnold, p. 185).
The register depends on:
For example, we distinguish a legal/medical/technical etc. register depending on the field of the communicative exchange; and a formal/informal or neutral register depending on the tenor and mode.
When we speak to our friends, we are usually very relaxed and use informal language; when we write, we tend to use more formal language.
The sentences below use a formal or informal register. Rewrite them to make them sound more formal or informal.
Terrific! (informal) It was very good! (neutral) It was outstanding! (formal)
Key to the activity
If we take a close look at the examples in the previous slide, and at the changes which occur in the shift from formal to informal register and viceversa, we notice that:
A formal register is characterized by:
An informal register is characterized by:
R. Carter, S. Cornbleet, 2001, The Language of Speech and Writing, London, Routledge.
R. L. Trask, 1997, A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London, Arnold.