Writing skills III: Choosing your genre and adapting your language


Novels, short stories, poems, letters, newspaper articles and essays are all different genres – that is, they are different categories of texts, each with its own style and, in a sense, its own rules. Some of them, likes letters and most poems, also demand their own layout. The differences between these genres are obvious, between a novel and a letter, for example. However, there are different varieties of essay, and there is a whole group of other genres which have quite a lot in common.
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A personal essay is lighter than a formal essay: it can include personal memoirs, and it can be altogether more light-hearted, along the lines of the Norwegian kåseri. (But be careful: writing humorous prose is difficult!) If you are asked to write an essay, it is best to assume it is a formal essay unless you are specifically told it is a personal one. Remember: formal must not mean dull. A formal essay should be written in a lively engaging style.
Similarly, an article can be anything from a light-hearted newspaper column for a Saturday morning newspaper to a serious article demanding close reading. A talk or speech, too, can be a dazzling, light-hearted affair, or can be serious and weighty. (You are sometimes asked to write the text of a talk or speech.)
The key to choosing the correct genre is twofold. First, read your instructions very carefully, to find out the sort of text that would be appropriate. Second, think of your audience or readership. What sort of people are going to read this? What sort of reader-attitude will they have? What is the social context? For example, a letter to a newspaper about an accident on a dangerous road expects a different reader-attitude from a talk at football club dinner after a sensationally successful season.
Choosing the right genre is really a question of common sense.

Adapting your language

Imagine you are in a dangerous situation where you are being hunted by desperate criminals. You are in a small room with your partner who is a man of action, a Bruce Willis type, more than a man of words. You think here in this room you are safe, at least for the moment. But then, suddenly, you catch sight of an arm sneaking out of a closet. Your partner has his back to the closet and does not see the arm, or the hand on the end of the arm that is gripping a large hunting knife with a serrated edge; the kind of knife that can do quick, major damage. How do you warn your partner? Would you say, “I think perhaps, all things being considered, that we should extricate ourselves from this precarious situation with all haste as danger is most certainly developing just beyond your right shoulder?” Or would you simply shout: “Behind you! Move your butt!”
The answer is fairly obvious. You would choose short and very clear language to help your partner get out of the way. In doing this you have chosen to adapt your language to suit the situation. In Norwegian this is called quite aptly “situasjonstilpassa språk”. In English we call this register – you choose the register, the level of your language, to suit the situation at hand.
If you were to read the following: The court held that the resolution of the board to dismiss Mr. Johnson was unlawful. Who do you suppose the speaker is: a taxi driver, a football coach or a lawyer? Perhaps the football coach or the taxi driver would simply have said: “They couldn’t fire Johnson.” The register in this case tells us something about the speaker.
Let us imagine that you work for a small American firm. You have a customer who owes you $14.50. How should you address him? Should you begin your letter:
Dear Mr. Smith
You owe us $14.50. We don't like people who don't pay us so send us the money now, or else.
Dear Mr. Smith
Probably it's just an oversight on your part, but our records show that you have a balance of $14.50 due with us.
The first example sounds rude and threatening and might even suggest a visit from some mean-looking men in dark suits, which is not the kind of behaviour that is apt to encourage voluntary customer loyalty. The second example is open, friendly but firm. Which letter do you think will get the best result? Register is the appropriate language for the situation at hand. You choose a register to suit the context and the genre of the text.
You must use the language appropriate to your situation to get the results you want.

Choosing the appropriate language

Aim for Standard English. It is the brand of English generally used by professional English speakers and writers. Actually, there are several varieties of Standard English: Standard American English, Standard Written English, and so on, depending on the context of communication. Standard English is used by educated people, whether they speak with a regional accent or not. All official documents, textbooks, instruction manuals, “quality newspapers” and magazines are written in Standard English, which is also what children are taught to use in school. Standard English is also the form of English taught to foreigners. This is the English you have been learning throughout your school career.
If you write gonna for “going to” or ain’t for “am not”, you might be trying to reflect the non-standard English you have learned from films or from song lyrics. But as it is non-standard English, it will most often not fit the context of the sort of texts you write. In such cases using non-standard English, such as “ain't” or “gonna” or “wanna” or “doesn’t” will get in the way of good communication.
However, choosing the right register is much more interesting that simply avoiding contractions like “wanna” and “doesn’t”. We can illustrate this with an example. Imagine you have your own parking space at work that has taken you years to acquire. You are very proud of this right, but someone in a blue Cortina, licence number KG 445665, keeps parking in your space. Is he or she doing it on purpose, or is he or she unaware of your special privilege? You check with personnel and find out that the owner of the car is a Miss Margaret Jones in accounting, which is a department far away from yours in another building. She has been with the firm for seven months. You decide to inform her of the situation and your irritation.
Now you have to make a choice. Would you write a formal letter to her, or a note to be left under her windshield wiper, or a letter to the editor in the company's internal newspaper, or a letter requesting immediate action to your superior, Ms Donna Bracken, Chief Marketing Director? Or would you call her on the phone? Then you have another choice: what style of language would you use; that is, what register would you choose?
It goes without saying that your English should be as correct as possible. By “correct” we mean that you use standard grammar and standard spelling, and that you avoid writing English that is badly influenced by Norwegian. In your letter of application for a job in a bookshop’s English section, for example, it would ruin the sort of impression you want to communicate if you were to write “Reading english are one of mine hobbits, especialy reading actual books” instead of “Reading English is one of my hobbies, especially reading topical books.” This is an obvious point. Carelessness is always unconvincing. Your goal is to write convincing English. To be convincing you use correctly Standard English, but use it in an interesting and energetic way, taking your reader with you through your text

To enjoy and exploit the full tapestry of the English language, you must get the simple things right first!


Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 20.06.2008

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