Thursday, March 27, 2014

The myth of official style

Official style has become a solid system in the world. The majority of people prefer to write in official style in order to gain credibility and authority such as academic articles and government documents. However, most of them feel reluctant to read in official style because it is hard and time-consuming for them to fully understand. Official style stands in an awkward position. What makes official style become so mythological? What’s the actual benefit of official style? Does it offer information to readers? I want to use a specific example to deconstruct the myth of official style.
In the home page of Murphy library, there is a given statement: about assessment, which includes two sections. One is library department assessment of student learning, the other one is Murphy library evidence-based decision making. Basically, the assessment is an evaluation of student program-CST 110 of UW-L. The first section is about what students can gain from this program and how library department helps students to search needed information effectively. The second section indicates that the department of Murphy Library makes decision based on evidence. Each section contains four or five paragraphs.
What impresses me is that, on the whole, each paragraph consists of no more than three sentences, no matter how long the paragraph is. Take the ninth paragraph as example: “The library’s collection of information resources comprises the foundation of our role in the educational mission of UW-L. Whether in the classroom, at the reference desk, or in the provision of other programs and services, the adequacy and effectiveness of the library collection is directly experienced by librarians in our ability to meet the specific information resource needs of the community. Gaps uncovered in the collections may be addressed with new library purchases initiated as the direct result of librarians working with faculty or students in support of specific research projects or assignments.”  With a Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease score of 18.9, an average grade level of 18.8, and 31.7 words per sentences, these three sentences stand out because of their complicated grammar structures as well as various characteristics of official style. For example, the majority of words are nouns except for three verbs “comprise”, “experience” “address” and a few prepositions as well as conjunctions. The abuse of nominalization perplexes the sentences. I have to spend much more time to break down the structure, to identify predicates. What’s more, the repetition of derivational affixes “ion” makes the sentences become more verbose and abstract such as “collection, information, foundation, educational, mission and provision.” Furthermore, these three sentences are basically coordinated by prepositional phrases. For instance, “in the provision of, needs of, result of, in the classroom, at the reference desk, in support of” seems to impart the sentences with continuity and integrality. However, it turns out to be opposite because readers may feel confused and fuzzy. They don’t even get the point of the presented information, so it will be less chances for them to notice the so-called “continuity and integrality” of the official style. In fact, some of the prepositional phrases can totally be replaced by simple verbs. To illustrate, we can substitute “in support of” with “support”. In this way, we can know the core action of the sentences instead of breaking down the whole structure. Other than the characteristics of official style I mentioned above, the excerpts also use passive voice, infinitive phrases and participle phrases.
It is hard to image that only three sentences concentrate so many elements of official style. Writing in an official style, apparently, limits the readability. Too much nouns plus complex syntax as well as complicated words definitely make the sentences become rather tricky. The sentence seems no predicts at all, and I think it is too long for me to read through it with patience. There are lots of ambiguities in terms of grammar and word definition presented in the sentence. For example, “Whether in the classroom, at the reference desk, or in the provision of other programs and services, the adequacy and effectiveness of the library collection is directly experienced by librarians in our ability to meet the specific information resource needs of the community.” I have tried to read this for several times, but I am still confused by the part “in our ability to meet…” because I don’t know how to locate the modifiers within the sentence.
However, as an international student in UW-L, I have to admit that I do feel the assessment was credible and authoritative even though I don’t fully understand what it talks about at the first sight. There are three reasons for me to draw this conclusion. First, as a non-native speaker, I don’t have much confidence in English. Secondly, I assume that the people who write this assessment have a higher-level educational background than me. Thirdly, I relate the assessment to the bureaucratic image of department of Murphy Library. But I begin to wonder where the point is if I don’t understand the meaning of the sentences first. I don’t know what can I get out from this CST projects and I even don’t know how to ask librarians for help. To me, the credibility of assessment is completely meaningless because it can’t help me to learn something really practical. I am excluded by the department of Murphy Library.
Anyone who has access to the website would be the readers. In addition to international students, the undergraduates are also the victims. As we can see from the statistics, the average level is pretty high. The undergraduates especially freshmen will have trouble understanding the assessment thoroughly. Most of them are not willing to spending much time reading an assessment that is not the assigned homework. Furthermore, the difficulty of official style blocks the students with interests to read these pieces of information. Here comes the problem, what’s the purpose of the assessment? Who are the target audiences? But who can really understand the assessment actually?
I think that official style is born for a certain type of readers. The purpose of office style is measured by its target audience. To illustrate, the purpose of the assessment is to provide information about the benefits of this project, how this project works, and outcome of the project. The target audiences should be the undergraduates no matter international students or native students.  Ironically, the usage of official style excludes its target audiences to some extent. Even though professors and librarians can understand the assessment, they are not the people who can benefit from this program. Obviously, the people who write this assessment focus on the “authority” of being an intellectual rather than take the audiences into consideration.
As readers, we should think and read beyond the myth of official style. The most important point for us is to understand, to save time to learn as much as we can. We shouldn’t be blinded by the privilege of official style. It is unnecessary for us to research the empty words. Instead, we want to create a new straight literary system to convey our information.
By Chuying Liang

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