The Complete Guide to English Style for EFL Learners
When you are getting to grips with English, much of your time will be taken up with learning the nitty gritty: grammar and vocabulary.
These are clearly fundamental, and it is right that so much of your early focus be dedicated to them; but another important aspect of learning a language that is often neglected is style. Though style is something that varies from person to person, and from one context to another, each language has its own overall style, and that means that what sounds good in one language may not work quite so well in another. In this article, we’re going to introduce you to various aspects of English style so that you start to get a sense of how this may differ from your native tongue.
Let’s start by looking at a few of the fundamental principles of English style. It’s quite a complex topic and difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes up style, as so much depends on the context, but here are some of the main points to think about.
At its best, English style is about communicating clearly and effectively. The Guardian Style Guide quotes Aristotle on this:
“Style to be good must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.”
Whether you’re writing a formal document or just chatting with a friend, it’s best to keep your sentences free from jargon, and to be economical with words – that is, not using ten where three will suffice. You want to be understood, otherwise there would be no point in writing or talking, so as a general rule of thumb, ‘keep it simple’ is a good mantra. If only the people who write legal small print could grasp this!
Generally, the more formal writing is, the longer and more sophisticated the sentence structures are. Using very long sentences in an informal context won’t work in English (and therefore the longer sentences of some other languages won’t work well directly translated into English, such as Portuguese).
In many European languages, nouns are either male or female. In English, there is no such distinction. On a related note, if you’re unsure how to refer to someone (if you need to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known), it’s now common practice to use the plural “they” (even for a single person) in place of “he or she”, as it saves words and it’s a little more elegant.
Distinction between informal and formal “you”
Unlike French, we don’t make the distinction between the formal “vous” and the informal “tu” when addressing someone in the second person. Everyone is just “you”. This alleviates the potential offence of using the wrong one (being too formal or worse, overly familiar)!
There are a few stylistic things to bear in mind in the use of punctuation. Use of more than one exclamation mark is generally frowned upon and this is only really seen in very informal written contexts such as social media updates. There are rules – which most people aren’t very familiar with – about whether commas and other punctuation should go inside or outside quotation marks (talked about in this article, which compares British and American styles). Those who know how to use English properly use ‘advanced’ punctuation such as semi-colons, which join two freestanding sentences together (which sounds more sophisticated than two short sentences). And we’re quite fond of rhetorical questions: posing questions for dramatic effect, for which no answer is expected. Why? Because it makes us sound clever. (We used a rhetorical question just there!)
Formal written English
Let’s start by looking at the formal English style, as this is the one you’ll need to get to grips with for academic purposes. This style is appropriate in a variety of contexts, including:
- Academic writing
- Corporate documents
- Formal letters
Some of the common features of formal English are:
- Passive sentence structures – for example, “the flower is pollinated by the bee” as opposed to “the bee pollinates the flower”
- Inanimate nouns as the subject, rather than humans
- Verbal nouns – nouns formed from verbs, such as “The building of the suspension bridge”
We’ll see how these contrast with informal English a little later, but first let’s look more closely at two major examples of situations in which you might find yourself using or encountering formal English.
- Essays, theses and dissertations
- Academic books and textbooks
- Journal articles
Academic writing requires a particularly formal written style that leaves rather less room for individual style. Sentences tend to be longer (with short sentences really only used to make a point stand out), with more complex structures, and the passive voice is used. ‘Bigger’ words are used – words that wouldn’t normally be used in everyday speech because they would sound too pompous.* Semi-colons are used more often, and introduce a sense of considered pauses by joining two freestanding sentences together. Contractions such as “couldn’t” are virtually never used in academic writing, and the first person pronoun “I” is kept to a minimum. Sometimes, to avoid using the word “I”, we will use the word “one” as a first or second person pronoun – for example, “One gets the sense that…” instead of “I get the sense that…” or “You get the sense that…” This is therefore used in an ‘everyman’ sense to refer to a generic individual, and it’s seen as a little pompous – or “posh” – when used in informal contexts. Footnotes are used to add additional information and citations, and these citations are structured in a very formulaic way according to a particular convention, typically using the surname and initial of the author, publication date, page numbers and so forth.
*Though that’s not to say that academic work is free from pomposity – in fact many scholarly works are spectacularly pompous because they deliberately use obscure words when simpler ones would suffice. They make the person who wrote it feel cleverer, but it’s bad practice because it alienates some readers and makes a point more difficult to grasp, which entirely defeats the object of writing in the first place.
- Business proposals
- Press releases and other business communications
Very corporate styles of English, such as those found in business proposals, tend to be littered with jargon, though, as we saw right at the beginning, this isn’t a good thing (clarity and simplicity are by far the preferable things to aim for, as they allow the reader to understand you immediately – which is the whole point). The corporate world is notorious for using made-up jargon such as “blue sky thinking” or “end of play”, though these are increasingly loathed. Customer-facing corporate styles of English are often dictated by detailed ‘style guides’ that outline standardised spellings and tones of voice, so that work by many writers retains the same unified corporate voice that sounds as though it was all written by the same person. An example of this is a newspaper; The Guardian, for example, uses the excellent style guide we referred to earlier. Some customer-facing corporate styles are informal and chatty, such as that of Innocent Drinks; such styles use short sentences and everyday language. They’re designed to be ‘matey’ with customers and make them feel as though the brand is their friend.
Informal written English
Most people don’t consciously think about writing in a particular style – they just write. But they are almost certainly conforming to the ‘English way of doing things’ in the kind of language they use and the way they structure their words.
Examples of contexts:
- Writing a letter or email to someone you know well
- A Facebook or Twitter update
- A blog post
- Active voice, such as “Tom teaches Harry how to play croquet”
- Humans as the subject
- Often addresses the reader – as I’m addressing you in this article
- Uses informal language such as slang and idioms
- Uses contractions, such as “shouldn’t” instead of “should not” (not using contractions when writing informally comes across as a bit stilted and doesn’t read well).
Having covered the various contexts in which you may need to use or read English, the other side to the language is the way in which it is spoken. Conversational English is your key to communicating effectively, making friends and becoming more confident in your use of English. The remainder of this article highlights the main things that make conversational English distinctive.
When speaking, we tend to use contracted forms such as “shouldn’t” instead of “should not” or “don’t” instead of “do not”. You would sound quite odd if you didn’t use them when speaking, and it would disrupt the flow of your speech, making it sound laboured.
In conversational English there are various ways in which we speak informally without even realising it. Some of the things that make our language less formal include:
- Slang – “loo” instead of “toilet”, for example, or “spuds” instead of “potatoes”.
- Idioms and clichés – such as “I’ll not beat about the bush” when meaning “I’ll get straight to the point”.
- Sarcasm – our sense of humour is often quite sarcastic, so you’ll find us saying things sarcastically that we don’t really mean (the opposite of what we really mean, in fact). For example, if we were in a situation that we really weren’t enjoying, we might say “Well this is pretty much the most fun I’ve ever had.”
- Euphemisms – finding a gentler way of saying something potentially offensive or upsetting; for example, saying that someone “passed away” rather than “died”.
Addressing other people
In many other European languages there’s a degree of formality in addressing a stranger; in French, you would address a man as “monsieur” and in Italian as “signor”, for example. There is no real English equivalent of these, as “sir” and “madam” are now largely obsolete in conversational English. However, if you were referring to a stranger in the third person in their presence, you’d say “this lady” or “this gentleman” rather than “this woman” or “this man”; for example, “This lady would like to buy some oranges.”
Many of us English speakers are prone to exaggeration in conversational English, as it makes what we’re saying sound more impressive or dramatic. We know it’s not to be taken literally, but we’ll often say things like “I killed a spider last night that was the size of a football”, or “They kept me waiting forever”.
A major characteristic of spoken English is the use of tactful, diplomatic language. Because we’re generally a polite bunch of people, we don’t want to offend anyone, so we often say things indirectly to take the sting off them or tone things down. This way of speaking is often lost on those who aren’t native speakers, and their more direct style may inadvertently offend a British person.
For example, instead of asking someone directly, “please do this”, we would pad it out with extra words to tone it down and sound a little more humble; for example: “it would be good if you could…” or “I’d really appreciate it if you could…” We also try to avoid being too negative. Rather than telling someone, “I don’t like it”, we would turn it around and say something like, “It’s not quite what I was hoping for.” If we’re having to give someone bad news, we will try to use language to ‘soften the blow’. For example, rather than saying “that’s not possible”, we’ll say something like, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that, unfortunately”. Notice how we added the “I don’t think” to this sentence, just so that it comes across as still a possibility. If you’re about to tell someone something that they’re not going to want to hear, you might want to begin the sentence with the words, “I’m afraid…”. For example, “I’m afraid you didn’t get the job”.
Understanding the subtleties of the style element of a language takes time; it’s not something that can be easily taught in the way grammar and vocabulary are, but rather something that one gets a feel for with experience. The best thing you can do to develop a sense of how English is written and spoken is to read as much English as you can, in a variety of contexts, and to speak English with native speakers. Little by little, you’ll pick up English style without even realising it – but there’s no substitute for experience.