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Wilbers: Adapt level of formality to your reader, subject, occasion

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 8, 2013 - 2:00 PM

How good are you at adapting your level of formality to your reader, subject, and occasion? For practice, divide the following sentences into one of three levels: overly formal, middle range, and too informal.

1. Subsequent to a tumultuous storm featuring thunder and lightning, the Minnehaha Creek brimmed over its banks and the Minnehaha Falls resonated with a reverberating roar.

2. The terrace around Sea Salt Eatery was thronged with pedestrians and bikers watching the mist rise from the falls.

3. Everyone was gaga over what was going down.

4. The scene was like way cool, I mean, like totally random.

5. On the steep hillside beneath the ledge and behind the cascading water sat four thrill-seeking teenagers.

6. Until such time as the luminescence of the setting summer sun was at last extinguished from the western sky, people remained stationary, a community amalgamated by their adoration of the beauty that emanates from nature.

To my ear, sentences 2 and 5 are in the middle range, sentences 1 and 6 are overly formal, and sentences 3 and 4 are too informal.

Here’s what sentences 1, 3, 4 and 6 look like recast in the middle range of formality:

1. After a huge thunderstorm, the Minnehaha Creek overflowed its banks and the Minnehaha Falls roared.

3. People were enthralled by the spectacle.

4. It was a memorable scene.

6. Until the last light of day had faded, people lingered, a community united by their love of natural beauty.

There are times, of course, when both formal and informal expression is appropriate. For example, no one would fault a Supreme Court justice for writing, “It is the opinion of this court that …” Similarly, your colleagues might appreciate the informality of a spirited “Hey, your presentation rocked!” But for many types of on-the-job writing, you should aim for the middle.

Let’s have another go at it. Divide the following sentences into one of three levels: formal, middle range, and informal.

1. As per our conversation, I deem it imperative that we realize an expeditious resolution to this issue.

2. We are looking to increase profits big time fourth quarter.

3. You have no right to wiretap my phone without a court order.

4. I really want to make my goals before I’ve got to turn in my progress report.

5. Prior to her arrival at our firm, she endeavored to diminish the astonishing disparity in remuneration between wage earners and CEOs.

To my ear, sentence 3 is in the middle range, sentences 1 and 5 are formal, and sentences 2 and 4 are informal. Sentences 1, 2, 4, and 5 recast in the middle range might look like this:

1. As we discussed, I think we need to resolve this issue expeditiously.

2. We anticipate a significant increase in fourth-quarter profits.

4. I’m committed to achieving my goals before I submit my progress report.

5. Before joining our firm, she worked to diminish the astonishing disparity in pay between wage earners and CEOs.

So have you dined yet this evening or jeet yet? Or have you had your dinner?

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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