Linguapress English Grammar
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Linguapress English Grammar

Written and oral styles of English

The main principles

From formal style to informal style - what are the rules or principles ?

In any language, different styles of expression are appropriate in different situations. We can go from the formal to the informal, the written to the spoken, from technical language (or jargon) to slang. Generally speaking writing styles tend to be more formal than the styles of spoken English, though both reach from the formal to the informal.
Rules of style:   There are no "rules" as such; nevertheless, there are plenty of features or principles which distinguish formal styles of English from informal styles. These are detailed below.

Principles of English style:



Here are some examples; in each case, the same idea is expressed using three different levels of formality: look at the different changes that occur, as we move from a formal style to an informal one

From formal to informal, written to spoken English

1. The inclement climatic conditions obliged the President to return earlier than scheduled.
The president was obliged to return earlier than planned due to poor weather conditions.
The president had to go back sooner than  planned because the weather was so bad.
2. Please await instructions before dispatching items.
Please wait for instructions before sending items off.
Don't send anything off until you're told to.
3. Essential measures should be undertaken at the earliest opportunity.
One should undertake any necessary measures as soon as possible.
You should do whatever you have to as soon as you can.
4. Prior to the discovery of America, potatoes were not consumed in Europe.
Before America was discovered, potatoes were not eaten in Europe.
Before they discovered America, Europeans didn't eat potatoes.

Basically, that's it!  The four examples above should be crystal clear. What could be simpler !

Written and spoken versions of a language use different styles, different registers. To talk in "written English" may be no more appropriate than to write using a "spoken" variety of English. Generally speaking, written English is always more formal than spoken English. nevertheless, there are informal forms of written English (notably in fiction and in the popular press), and formal styles of spoken English, in particular "discourse", or prepared speech.

Written style can also be affected by the length of sentences used, the length of paragraphs, and other features of punctuation.

Examples of writing and spoken styles

The same idea expressed in six different styles:
Example 1:
In the following sentences, the same message is expressed in six different styles, from an extremely formal writing style, to a very informal spoken style.  Note in particular how the colour coded word groups evolve.

   In order to demonstrate a full range of styles using a single "message", it is necessary to choose a subject or topic which people actually write or talk about in a whole range of contexts. These examples show the different styles, from the very formal to the informal, that could be used for expressing a message  about  government fiscal policy (or, to put it less formally, government tax policy).  Different parts of the message are colour-coded: see how they change from one style to the next.  Note that the British currency is formally known as "Sterling", and most often spoken about as "the Pound".
a) Jargon, very formal.
This is the style of language used in official reports, technical studies, etc. It is exclusively a style of written English, full of verbal nouns, technical words and passives
Consequent to the appreciation in the exchange value of Sterling against other currencies, necessary fiscal measures were introduced by the government in order to reduce the likelihood of an import-led consumer spending surge.
b) Written and clear. Formal narrative style
This is clear, written English, as found in the "quality" press or in documents - even on technical subjects - aimed at ordinary educated readers. Good literary style is also formal and clear.
After the international value of Sterling rose, the government was obliged to take fiscal measures to reduce the likelihood of a surge in consumer spending led by cheaper imports.
c) Written style for the general public, discourse, scripted radio or TV news style.
This is classic English written style, as found in books, popular newspapers,  and magazines for the general public. It is the style of formal discourse – discourse being spoken English from a written or "scripted" text.
As the value of Sterling increased compared to other currencies, the government was forced to take tax measures to head off a rapid increase in consumer spending spurred on by cheaper imports.
d) Formal spoken style - radio, seminar, talk.
As Sterling's international value went up, the government had to take tax measures to head off a consumer spending boom spurred on by cheaper imports.
e) Relaxed, informal spoken style: discussion.
There is plenty of use of prepositional verbs. All actions are now expressed through verbs, not verbal nouns
As the Pound went up in value, the government had to put up taxes  to  stop consumers splashing out on too many cheap imports.
f) relaxed, casual speech, chat, very informal spoken style; 
Note the addition of repetition and fillers.
And you see, the Pound went up and up in value, so as a result the government had to go round putting up taxes,  you see, to stop everyone going out and splashing out, spending all their cash on cheap imports.

Example 2:

This sentence is expressed only in formal writing style (level a) and in an informal spoken style (level e)
Citizens  whose normal place of abode is outwith the United States of America are henceforth required to register their interests with the United States consulate nearest their domicile ; failure to register may lead to forfeiture of fiscal exemptions on  revenues paid by sources in the United States.
Americans who normally live abroad now have to sign up at nearest US consulate. If they don't they may find themselves having to pay tax on anything they earn from US sources.

Style practice exercise:

Attempt to rephrase the message of example 2 in one or two intermediate styles.

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Here is just a very small sample of articles in graded English to read on
Advanced level English (B2 - C1)
Nevada and its Extraterrestrials
Los Angeles - City of Angels, or of dangers? with audio
Henry Ford, the man who changed America with audio
America's drive-in movie theaters
Just who are the English ?
The King, the Monarchy and the future with audio
JRR Tolkien - The man behind the Hobbit
Short story : A few good reasons  with audio
More short stories  with audio
Intermediate level English (B1 - B2)
Alcohol, prohibition and Al Capone
George Washington, America's first president  with audio
No more Fish 'n' chips ? Britain's fast food.
New life for Big Ben  with audio
Language and style 
Word stress in English  with audio
The short story of English
More resources

Discover Britain - institutions, tourism, life

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