Elements of Essay Writing Style

When assessing written work we usually consider two aspects of it: what is said, and how it is said. It often happens that the content is interesting enough, but the mode of expressing it is poor, and not because there are mistakes in spelling or grammar. The form may be poor even if grammar is all right — in this case we say that the style is bad. The style is bad when the sentences are monotonous, the vocabulary poor, and the writing unimaginative. The style is bad, too, when the form does not suit the subject of the composition. The same basic content can be expressed in different ways or styles. Just as a builder can use bricks and mortar to construct almost anything from a shack to a castle, we use the same raw material — English words and grammar — to express a wide variety of subjects in appropriate style.

Varieties of English.

A language is not a single homogeneous phenomenon but rather a complex of many different varieties, each of which is appropriate to a certain type of situation. You must have noticed a vast difference between a passage from David Copperfield, a newspaper report, a text on linguistics and a recipe from a cookery book. Yet all of them are written in the same language. So what are the varieties of English?

Modern scholars distinguish between the following varieties:

According to medium: spoken and written.

According to subject matter: the language of technical and scientific description; the language of legal documents; the language of newspaper reporting, and some others.

According to attitude (of the speaker/writer to the hearer/reader): normal – rigid – formal or informal – familiar – neutral

The normal, or neutral, variety is the unmarked variety, a kind of zero point of the scale, with formal, rigid, or even frozen on the one side, and informal, familiar, intimate, etc., on the other. The neutral variety bears no obvious attitudinal colouring, as in: This student’s work is now much better and seems likely to go on improving. Now consider the following example.

“After my father died,” Mr. Elver explained, “my sister went to live with her godmother, who was the old lady at the big house in our parish. A nasty old woman she was. But she took to Grace. When the old bird died at the beginning of this year, Grace found she’d been left twenty five thousand.”

In this passage the same person is referred to four times in different terms. “Godmother” and “old lady” (at the big house) are used formally to define the person’s relation to the girl and her social status in the parish; “old woman” is neutral; “old bird” is colloquial and bears a marked personal attitude of the speaker to the woman (compare with the previous: “A nasty old woman she was.”).

The two following examples show the difference between the formal, neutral and informal mode of expressing the same idea:

1. I have our brochure here setting out our services. Were you thinking of Interment or incineration} ( Formal) Pardon me? Buried or cremated} (Neutral)

2. Overtime emoluments are not available for employees who are not resident. (Formal)

Staff who don’t live in can’t get paid overtime. (Informal)

The first thing that strikes you about these examples is the choice of words. The formal variety uses many bookish words, often of Latin or Greek origin. The formal, as well as the neutral, variety is always character­ized by precise syntax, while the informal variety may contain elliptical or unfinished sentences, contracted forms {I’d, I’m, can’t, etc.), for example:

1. What’s up? Someone die? Been having a tiff, is that it? (Informal)

What has happened? Has someone died? Or have you been having a tiff? (Neutral)

2. Anything in the coffin besides the body? (Informal) Is there anything in the coffin besides the body? (Neutral)

It would hardly be realistic to expect students to use all the varieties of English, but speaking of the written variety, they should master the neutral-formal variety appropriate for essays, summaries, reproductions, etc.; the formal variety used in business letters; and the neutral-informal variety as used in letters to friends.

Neutral-formal written style is characterized by the following features.
Restrictions upon the vocabulary. Words and phrases labeled colloquial, familiar, vulgar, slang are excluded as inappropriate.
Absence of abbreviations. Contracted verbal forms {I’m, we’re, he’d, etc.), colloquial abbreviations of words {ad, exam, vac, etc.), symbols like &, %, etc., figures (e. g. There were 7 mistakes in your work) should not be used.
Orderly grammatical structure. The ideas are arranged in a logical sequence, in measured syntactical structures. Paragraphs are more fully developed than in informal style. Impersonal treatment of the subject matter. The author usually tries to avoid the first person singular; sometimes it results in wider use of the passive voice.

Elements of Essay Writing Style
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