When discussing the official style verses plain style I find that often times the official style is the one that receives the most criticism. It uses euphemisms, a passive voice, complex sentences, and slow sentence openings when it could be said with half the words in simpler form. Often times we are looking at elevated levels of the official style when making these observations and sometimes we cannot understand why anyone would use such confusing language when plain language is much clearer. However I would argue that a certain amount of the official style is necessary to survive in this world—particularly the business world. By creating a balance between plain and official styles, business people are able to construct messages with the right tone and diction they are trying to achieve.
One of the main reasons people use the official style is to appear professional, a requirement in the business setting. After analyzing several online sources of e-mails, letters to customers, memos, and letters from the CEO it became evident that a certain amount of the official style is necessary not only for the importance of professionalism, but also to accurately communicate what’s intended, establish credibility, avoid legal issues, and simply to be polite.
Take for example this thank you email:
“Thank you very much for all your assistance with planning our annual conference. Your expertise in handling the logistics, the meeting arrangements, the multimedia presentations, coordinating travel, and in organizing the event were greatly appreciated.
I really appreciate your help and I am sure we will be contacting you for your assistance with next year's conference.
In the interim, if I can provide you with a recommendation or if there is anything else I can do to assist, please don't hesitate to ask.”
The writer of this email is putting a special emphasis on her appreciation toward the receiver of the email. In plain language, the email would read:
“Thank you for your help with our conference. You’re skills were helpful and appreciated. We will be contacting you next year for your help again. In the mean time, if you need a recommendation feel free to call me.”
The second version, however, is robotic and doesn’t sound nearly as appreciative as the actual email. In this case, the official style is necessary in creating the appreciative tone. Also, using more official language makes it sound professional instead of colloquial.
Another reason someone in the business world might want to use official language is credibility. For example, below is a letter from the CEO of Nike to consumers from the Nike website:
“NIKE is dedicated to serving athletes and helping them reach their full potential. As a growth company we are dedicated to creating value for our shareholders. The world in which athletes and companies compete is changing fast. We believe business has a critical role to play in meeting the challenges of a changing world – addressing climate change, preserving the earth’s constrained resources, enhancing global economic opportunity – not by reducing growth but by redefining it. To do this we believe businesses must embrace sustainability as an innovation opportunity and governments should act to create the right policies and incentives to accelerate change at scale.
By sharing our experience, documenting our progress, noting where we have fallen short and identifying the challenges that lie ahead, we hope NIKE can help positively shape the future.
The challenge to create a sustainable economy is global and requires a global response. We believe it begins with a simple idea: invent better solutions.”
Here the official style is used to establish credibility with it’s readers. There are a lot of compound sentences, slow sentence starters, and larger words all to make consumers believe that Nike is a trustworthy, reliable, professional company. If you read a statement on sustainability that said, “Nike thinks sustainability is important,” it doesn’t say a whole lot. That’s essentially what the message is, but I would perceive that company as being uniformed or lazy. Most things require more elaborate explanations and I argue that with most cases in business, it does.
The following example demonstrates how businesses use the official style to avoid legal issues. It is a prototype of an employee handbook section that discusses how the company is an equal opportunity employer:
“This company is an equal opportunity employer and does not unlawfully discriminate against employees or applicants for employment on the basis of an individual’s race, color, religion, creed, sex, national origin, age, disability, marital status, veteran status or any other status protected by applicable law. This policy applies to all terms, conditions and privileges of employment, including recruitment, hiring, placement, compensation, promotion, discipline and termination.
Whenever possible, the company makes reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities to the extent required by law. Employees who would like to request a reasonable accommodation should contact [enter authorized person’s name].”
There’s a lot of extra words that plain language wouldn’t require. The use of the words “unlawfully against employees or applicants for employment,” “any other status protected by applicable law,” “whenever possible the company makes reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities to the extent required by law,” and listing all terms the policy applies to is a way for the company to prevent lawsuits due to technical terms. In other words, they are covering their butts for any potential legal issues that may arise.
The official style can also be used for politeness. This may seem silly, but the wrong tone and diction can seriously change people’s attitudes toward a person, particularly a person of authority. It has been scientifically proven that when employees respect their manager or supervisor and feel they are being treated with respect, their job performance and satisfaction are higher. Therefore it is important to be respectful even when there are difficult topics to discuss. The following is a letter to employees about a conflict in the office:
“It has come to our attention that there has been a pile of unwashed dishes that accumulates in the sink by the end of each week. It has gotten so bad that washing one’s hands in the kitchen sink becomes an uncomfortable undertaking. Therefore, we are introducing a new policy that mandates that employees wash their dishes as soon as they are done with them, keeping the sink clear for other uses.
“If you do not have the time to wash your lunch container or coffee mug, leave it by your desk until you are ready to wash it. Even two or three dirty plates will encourage every person thereafter to leave their unwashed, food-stained dishes and silverware in the sink. Conversely, studies have shown that when a sink is empty, people are more likely to wash their dishes immediately.
Thank you for your cooperation!”
The first sentence of this letter is very passive. “It has come to our attention that…” is one of the key indicators of a passive sentence. It also does not directly address people, but uses “we” and “one” to start. It makes it seem as if the dishes piled themselves up. The writer also chose to say that trying to wash their hands in a sink full of dirty dishes “becomes an uncomfortable undertaking,” a euphemism for “gross.” However, a letter like this, which doesn’t directly address anyone and provides support and reasoning for the new policy using euphemism and passivity, will go over much better than a note above the sink that says, “Quit leaving your dirty dishes in the sink for a week; it’s disgusting.” A message like this one, especially from an authority figure, will probably not go over well amongst colleagues.
In conclusion, a certain amount of official language is necessary to be professional in the business world. It is a way to appear credible, politically correct, and lawful. Official style helps to achieve the right tone and diction, two things that should be carefully considered when interacting among customers and co-workers. While these examples are not all extreme official style, they all contain bits and pieces of it—enough to change the tone of the message that extreme plain style could not achieve on its own.