Monday, October 14, 2013

The Official Style: A Foundation for a Nation

          The official style has been the basis of professional writing in our country for many years, so long that it has become the norm for most people when deciding how to present their ideas credibly in an organizational atmosphere. For that reason, I decided to choose the U.S. Constitution as my text for my critique of the official style. The Constitution has stood the test of time as an effective official document, and it contains many of Richard Lanham’s Elements of the Official Style, even though it predates his ideas by hundreds of years.
To exemplify the extent of the official style in the Constitution, I decided to choose Amendment XII (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html - 12), which was passed by Congress in 1803. Basically, this section of the Constitution deals with electing the President and Vice-President. Things like casting ballots and what to do in the event where no majority is reached or if the President were to die. When stated plainly, these ideas are quite simple. However, when implemented in official style, a large transformation occurs. With a Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease sore of -4, a an average grade level of 28.3, and 81.8 words per sentence, the 12th Amendment is riddled with verbose language and complex sentences, making it almost unspeakable. Take the idea of casting ballots and selecting a President; all that really needs to be stated is something to the degree of marking an “x” next to your choice for President and Vice-President, counting the ballots, and naming the winner. The official style and our founding fathers state it this way,
The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; -- the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; -- The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.
Keep in mind this is all one sentence, glued together by multiple prepositional phrases and complex diction, using two hundred and four words to communicate what could be said in fewer than fifty words. While sounding highly official and credible, the passage is quite shapeless, and the multiple ideas crammed into one sentence are slowly introduced one after one, imitating a list. The diction in the sentence is not even that jargonistic, however the fact that it is so verbose and bureaucratic makes it a challenging read-over. The uneven rhythm of the sentence also makes it difficult to follow; it seems like there are many suitable places for a period within the sentence, yet the passage just keeps stumbling on and on, either pieced together by prepositional phrases, or clauses that begin with “and”. The abundance of commas in the sentence makes the flow lackadaisical and renders passage almost impossible to read aloud. Just imagine sitting in a hot wooden room with no air conditioning, listening to someone drag on two hundred some word sentences. I’ve got to give credit to our founding fathers; they definitely were some tough individuals to endure that.
            Given the fact that this is a government document, it is not out of place that the official style was implemented to such an extent, and for the purpose of being as thorough and organized as possible, I believe the Constitution works well within the governmental activity system. Even today, amendments are written very similarly to predeceasing government documents such as the Constitution.  Complex and verbose sentences are the basis of government writing, and it is all for the purpose that whoever reads it will view it as organized and credible; ultimately trusting whatever is being stated. The official style plays greatly into the government’s hand when setting the stage from a rhetorical standpoint. Even though the Constitution is not a persuasive document so to speak, the implementation of official style throughout it creates a notion of power. When I read the Constitution, I look at it and think to myself that the government has everything well thought out and in order. The way that it is crafted just makes it seem like everything imaginable that could happen in the government has been accounted for. Now obviously this isn’t true, seeing as our current government, which is supposed to follow the ideals of the Constitution, cannot even function. I firmly believe however that if someone was unaware of our problems with our government and only had our Constitution to base their judgment off of, they would believe that the American Government was a well-oiled fully functioning machine; and I think that is exactly how our founding fathers wanted the image of our government to come off as.
The U.S. Constitution brilliantly communicates the fa├žade of a well-organized, highly structured and intelligent nation, when in all reality there are many issues under the surface. The ability to cover up the inadequacies of our government is key to our nation’s success, and we owe it all to our founding fathers and their choice of using the official style.

M. Walters

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