Chapter 12-2: Professional, Academic, and Business Language
Formal English is the common language used in elevated contexts, whereas informal English is used in more casual conversation. Avoid using informal English in formal situations.
Here are some tips on how to sharpen your professional writing skills.
Contractions are a feature of informal and spoken language, along with other features like slang. Avoid using contractions in formal writing.
Formal language should be clear and precise, which is why full word forms are usually preferred. Contractions can sometimes create ambiguity.
For example, the 's could be a contraction of is or has. It could also be the possessive 's.
David's tired. (David is tired.)
David’s been waiting all day. (David has been waiting all day.)
David’s taxi has arrived. (Possessive)
It may be possible or appropriate to use contractions in some types of formal writing.
Contractions could possibly be used in these situations:
Writing that is supposed to be light and conversational, like some personal writing tasks
Direct quotations that include contractions
Using set idioms that contain a contraction
Making a special comment in your own voice, such as in a footnote
Avoid Double Negatives
English is sensitive to double negatives. They occur when two negative forms appear in the same clause. In standard English, one single negative form is enough to give a negative meaning.
In standard English, double negatives will create a positive meaning, as each negative form challenges the next one.
For this reason, double negatives are considered to be confusing and incorrect in standard English. This is especially true in formal English.
Double negatives are common and acceptable in some varieties of informal English. They are often used in set expressions, particularly in quotes from popular music and movies.
When double negatives are used in this way, or in their original informal context, they are understood as a functional negative.
Double negatives functioning as informal negatives may appear in formal writing in some cases:
In direct quotes
In idiomatic phrases
English negation needs to be logical, even if the grammar seems acceptable.
("Nothing" is a zero object. It is illogical to use the affirmative action verb "bought" with the zero object.)
(It is better to negate the verb in this case.)
Wordiness occurs when communication is over-complicated with words or structures that are excessive, unnecessary, or poorly placed.
Ideas can sometimes be expressed in different ways. Keep formal writing clear and concise.
Especially in formal writing, it is important to choose words carefully. Every word should clearly express its own meaning and be important. If you take a word away, it should change the meaning of the sentence.
Sometimes people try to improve descriptions by using extra adjectives or adverbs. This can be a problem if they use too many synonyms that give the same information. When the extra synonyms are not helpful, this is called redundancy.
We can test the usefulness of each word by taking one away.
Both sentences have basically the same meaning, so we should avoid repetition by only choosing one adjective.
Adjectives and adverbs can be strengthened with modifiers like very or really. This can be too wordy. When writing professionally, choose a stronger descriptive word that can give the same meaning with one word instead of two.
Phrasal verbs are generally more informal. There is usually a single verb that can be used in the same place.
Sometimes it is sentence structures and poorly organized information that cause wordiness.
The Passive Voice involves a grammatical structure that can create a wordier sentence. Changing these to the Active Voice may create a clearer sentence.
The Passive Voice is not always incorrect in formal writing, but it is often discouraged.
Other confusing structures include awkwardly placed clauses. It may be necessary to remove certain information, or restructure sentences.
In formal English writing, express your ideas in a logical order. If every word is important, every idea should also be relevant, well-presented, and go directly to the point.
TIP: Asking somebody else to read your composition can show whether it is clear and easy to understand.
It is better not to repeat the same words and phrases very often. Too much repetition makes a text seem simple and poorly written. On the other hand, using synonyms shows that the writer has a good range of vocabulary and can write confidently. If the text is clear and easy to understand, the reader will enjoy variety in how information is presented.
Notice that repetition can be good for emphasis, particular when used in expressive communication. This is generally for more informal or spoken communication.
When writing, it is important to use different sentence lengths and varied structures. These make the text flow better.
TIP: Test for repetition by reading your work out loud. Repetitive words and structures are usually very clear when you hear them.
Avoid Vague Words
Choose precise words that give your intended meaning with strength and clarity.
Avoid using general words when there could be specific word choices to give more complete meaning. Basic nouns can be modified with adjectives, or exchanged for more descriptive ones.
Choose descriptive verbs when possible.
Remember that additional information can improve a description, but that every word should be uniquely helpful. It may be important to write more expressively, but care should be taken to avoid wordiness.