The Official Style
As students and teachers at the collegiate level we are bombarded with texts written in what we refer to as the official style. We read text book after text book, journal after journal, and essays upon essays all written in a structured, scholarly form using copious amounts of jargon, technical terminology and words that are longer than their definitions. While other styles such as the plain style or the creative style are usually simpler and more enjoyable to read, the official style is often viewed as the most credible and organized approach to presenting academic information. I would not disagree with this perspective, but this brand of writing must be used in the appropriate context and produced with consideration for the reader. In this semi-formal discussion I will be analyzing an excerpt from Baugh and Cable’s “A History of the English Language” which demonstrates an execrable use of the official style, both in terms of its contextual applications as well as the clarity of the text’s main points. Although I will highlight a few elements of sentence structure and strategies, the main focus will be to identify the flaws in this text as it relates to the target audience within its academic context. It is important to note that, for our purposes here the target audience will be novice students of Old English. In addition, I will explore potential improvements that could be made including structure and prose strategies and then conclude with a glance at opposing perspectives and why, although relevant under certain circumstances, these counter arguments are invalid under the claims, assumptions and paradigms that are outlined in this critique.
Lets assume that the primary function of the official style, at least in academia, is to provide a clear and definitive explanation of information. The success of this form of writing is determined by a myriad of factors, the most crucial of which are context and structure. Let me paint you a picture of the contextual components that surround our text. This book was written for use in college classrooms, to be taught to students with little or no experience regarding the evolution of the English language and instructed by English professors with an expertise in Old English, Middle English and Modern English. We know that this text is directed toward novice Old English learners based on both the course description and the content of this book which focuses on the changes that have occurred in the English language over time and presents only rudimentary information about how the former structure, alphabet, spelling and grammar of our language once functioned. Here is a sample from our chosen excerpt that attempts to introduce these changes:
[Within the Indo-European family of languages, it happens that the oldest, classical languages—Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin—have inflections of the noun, the adjective, the verb, and to some extent the pronoun that are no longer found in modern languages such as Russian or French or German.]
Because we are focusing on the novice student reader, who has a fairly limited understanding of classical languages and how they relate to English, this sentence provides us with essentially zero comprehensible information. For starters, we have no idea what nouns, adjectives or verbs look like in those languages, let alone how they were used. Beyond that, the writer has jumped into the changes associated with inflectional simplicity without presenting us with so much as a preliminary definition of the central term. But, for the sake of argument let’s assume that this definition is forthcoming and stop to identify some key sentence strategies that are at play in this sentence. The first flaw that anyone reading this passage will notice, especially if you are reading the surrounding segments of the book, is that the writer adds a great deal of words where none are needed. This sentence starts with the prepositional phrase “[w]ithin the Indo-European family of languages…” followed by our first unnecessary, expletive phrase (see what I did there) “…it happens that the oldest,…” which serves as one of a number of expletives found in this piece and one of two in this sentence alone. The rest of the sentence serves mostly to waste our time. “…, classical languages - Sanskrit, Greek, and latin - have inflections of the noun, the adjective, the verb, and to some extent the pronoun that are no longer found in modern languages such as Russian or French or German.” The useless appositive, “…,classical languages - Sanskrit, Greek and Latin - …” is again, gratuitous as is the second expletive, “…,and to some extent the pronoun…” Not only is this filler a pointless waste of space, but seeing as the writer never mentions pronouns again, here or later in his attempted definition, the point must be germane and therefore was not worth mentioning to the reader. Extraneous information is just as tedious, frustrating and misleading as an unwarranted word count. To reinforce this point we can paraphrase the sentence as it would look without the added words and information. Sanskrit, Greek and Latin have inflections of the nouns, adjectives and verbs, which are no longer found in modern languages.
After sixteen more purposeless words, the author begins his attempt to define inflectional simplicity (half a page after the term was introduced). After running this text through the Flesch-Kincaid readability calculator we have a score of 37.1 out of 100. (Imagine if that was your exam grade!) I feel the easiest way to demonstrate the salience of such a lack of readability, especially for a student who is trying to learn this information, will be to have you to read the “definition” of inflectional simplicity as it has been laid out by the authors. Try to gage how easily you grasp their main points and/or if you can, after reading, give your own definition of the term. Okay, here it is:
[Inflections in the noun as spoken have been reduced to a sign of the plural and a form for the possessive case. The elaborate Germanic infection of the adjective has been completely eliminated except for the simple indication of the comparative and superlative degree. The verb has been simplified by the loss of practically all the personal endings, the almost complete abandonment of any distinction between the singular and the plural, and the gradual discard of the subjunctive mood.]
And breath! This is as close as the writer ever comes to defining his term, yet he has not given one. He is still pointing out changes that have occurred over time, but has not provided us with a terminologically definitive foundation from which to build our understandings. He has put a roof over our heads, but forgot to build the walls that hold it up, leaving us metaphorically smushed. So, could you give me a definition of our term now that you have read this passage? Well, since our writers have denied you the privilege of understanding their own incoherence, I will provide you with a fundamental definition of inflectional simplicity. Remembering that we are operating within an academic activity system and keeping in mind that this course is not intent on teaching people to speak Old English, but simply to understand how it has evolved over time, the most appropriate definition would be; Inflectional simplicity refers to the gradual change in the English inflectional of nouns, adjectives, and verbs as it has evolved from its Germanic origins. With this definition fresh in your mind, let’s try to paraphrase the information in this three sentence description, along with the points from the first sentence that we analyzed, taking note of the continued use of unnecessary words and information. Then we will see if the concept makes more sense.
As English has progressed from its Germanic origins, it has gained greater inflectional simplicity. The primary examples of note are the changes in nouns, adjectives and verbs. Noun inflections are now determined by the sign of the plural and the form for the possessive case. (e.g.) The inflection of the adjective has been mostly eliminated. (e.g.) The verbs have also been simplified in three core ways. First is the removal of personal endings (e.g.) The second change is a lack of distinction between the singular and the plural. (e.g.) Finally, there has been a gradual disregard for the subjunctive mood. (e.g.)
The first three items you probably noticed here are A) my version is actually longer than the original by about thirty words. B) It is broken into eight sentences as opposed to three and C), the bold faced e.g. indicators without any examples. (Being a novice on the subject of Old English grammar I do not feel justified attempting to provide my own examples which may not be entirely accurate) So far our writers have consistently provided us with more words and information than were required. Now, at the moment where they needed to elaborate they give a succinct explanation. The reason my version is longer, and should be longer still, is that I separated my points sentence by sentence which gives the reader a clearer sense of what the relevant information is while also presenting it in a more obvious, extractable fashion. But, this explanation would be made even clearer if each point (noun, adjective and verb) were formatted in their own short paragraphs and included an example from Old English with one from Modern English to give the reader a useful demonstration of the changes they are referring to.(This being the purpose of the e.g. inserts) Of course, there are other approaches that may work such as a bulleted outline form, a point by point paragraph, even visual formats. (e.g. charts, tables, webs etc.)
We now have an understanding of what the flaws in this text are, but we have only touched on why this piece fails to convey the information in an effective manor. For an Old English scholar or linguist I am sure this text makes perfect sense without modification. But this book was not created for people with an intrinsic understanding of the contributing components to changes in our language. Its target audience is students who have never worked with, or at best have only a modicum of previous exposure to versions of English other than their own. So, by writing in what is, for all intensive purposes a “Samuel-Beckettious” stream of consciousness style, the writers have created a text that is essentially useless to the reader. We can even forget about the fact that there sentences are wordy, their descriptions contain irrelevant information, and their key points fail to provide any useful examples. The fact is, as I demonstrated above, this entire page, which is well over three hundred words, can be easily compacted into about one hundred words. An indecipherable page turned into a utilitarian paragraph. If you asked me to re-write this section of the book I would most likely have introduced the topic using my paragraph from above, with the addition of the definition I provided for inflectional simplicity. This would take up about a quarter of a page, leaving me the option to include a bulleted outline of the most crucial information with simple descriptions and a demonstrative example for each point. This not only increases the readability of the text, but also substantially decreases the ambiguity of the information making the extraction of the essential points faster, more comprehensible and more memorable than it stands in its current form.
Now, there are multiple perspectives to consider when critiquing any text. In this case the two primary viewpoints to consider are that of the student and that of the teacher. As students we value speed, efficiency, clarity and understanding when we are dissecting our text books. Having information laid out in a form that allows us to quickly read and extract the testable points saves us time and confusion. On the other hand, a teacher, particularly one of the English persuasion, may place a greater responsibility on the student and less on the clarity of the text. They may want you to engage and interact with the information in a more abstract way with the belief that struggling through complex concepts will give you the opportunity to discover meaning through your own immersion in the reading and force you to define key points in your own terms. To that end, I completely agree. Surprised? Well, this approach is extremely useful and it does serve to increase ones reading comprehension and text dissection adroitness.
But, as we have discussed multiple times, it is all about the paradigm, the context, the situation. In this case we are dealing with a book that holds a monopoly on its subject matter. There are virtually no other publications out there that address this topic from an educational perspective, which serves to undermine the overall credibility of this work in that it cannot be compared to equivalent texts which ironically serves as the reason for its general acceptance in academia. When analyzing the components of a novel, a news article, or even academic information in a field you are familiar with, engaging in the intellectual process of induction and deduction can be a very useful and beneficial tactic. This is not the case with Baugh and Cable. They have written a book that is used by students who are ignorant of the majority of the information being presented, in a style that caters to the linguists and Old English scholars, not to students. This inaccurate intimation of the readers preliminary understanding leads to a lack of any definitive description or explanation of the term in question. This results in the relay of arbitrary, germane information about observable changes of inflection in the English language that are essentially hieroglyphic to the reader who lacks the necessary, preexisting knowledge needed to derive any useful intelligence from this text.
Our discussion here has skimmed the surface of how official style can be used ineffectively, while also keeping in mind that our ability to engage with this kind of material is a skill that we, as educated individuals must accept as a necessity. This impacts my argument and creates the need for a specification. This text, while containing a great deal of information about the English language that should be a part of this course curriculum, must be assessed for its appropriateness. The book itself may not be as useless to somebody pursuing the study of Old English so to that end I must capitulate that this text is not entirely pointless and does have a potential classroom application. Given this concession, we have raised the question of the import of variety. When we are presented with information on any subject, a lack of available alternative sources should be a concern. We must always be critical of what we read but this is only possible through the application of caparison and where none is available our mind set should remain dubious.
The official style has been dubbed the dominant style of our time and is found everywhere from legal doctrines to political speeches, textbooks to memos, and has given us a comfortable form in which to express ourselves intellectually and professionally. But. as we have discussed, the use of this style must be considered with care when implementing it in our writing. It is crucial to consider your audience in order to gauge the degree to which you employ this language strategy and as we have seen, Baugh and Cable have failed miserably in this regard. They have created a textbook that caters to themselves and the result is a useless pile of paper that has been forced upon students who must constantly struggle to read and dissect its incoherent pages. Our writers have demonstrated zero consideration for their audience and utilized expletives to such a degree as to make their words unreadable and their concepts indecipherable. This book is a prime example of the official style gone wrong and proof that just because you as a writer understand what you are saying does not mean that your words have any value to those who will eventually be forced to read them.