Monday, October 20, 2014

The Official Style: The Language Presented to the Public

When asked to describe the official style in regards to written and spoken word, characteristics such as complex, intelligent, wordy, and passive are a few descriptors that particularly come to mind. It is odd, and at times ironic, if the goal of communication is to share ideas with others, that people can style their communication in such a complex manner. Outcomes and objectives of doing so include, but are not limited to, impressing others, sounding professional, misleading, and not accepting responsibility. As a U.S. citizen, information pertaining to your personal safety, well-being, and state of living should be clearly communicated to a general audience, with a voice that people understand and comprehend. Such addresses, specifically ones delivered by a current president after a crisis or major concern, should be communicated in a clear and plain style. With a closer examination one can notice that such public addresses, specifically John F. Kennedy’s announcement to the public concerning the Cuban missile crisis, contains many common features of the official style. As a future educator of the English language, I hope to communicate and share skills with students that are useful and transcend beyond the classroom. One of those skills includes being an educated citizen actively participating and engaging in news and other relevant information. In modern high school classrooms, English and history are many times grouped together to teach specific units. Personally, I feel that in doing so is extremely beneficial so that students receive multiple perspectives and participate in a variety of activities, discussions and assignments to take away from the unit. Examining this specific J.F.K. speech while in conjunction studying the historical contexts of the 1960s, students would note why this particular address to the nation was so important and how and why the official style is incorporated.
            When delivering such critical information, the style of the information should be presented at a level that the average U.S. citizen can understand. In order to convey such a message in a manner that the majority of the population can comprehend, an established average literacy rate of an adult is required. An article found on the Huffington Post titled, “The U.S. Illiteracy Rate Hasn’t Changed In 10 Years” contains a statistic from the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy that states, “…32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read” (Huffington Post 2013). With such low reading and literacy capabilities, public announcements should be constructed in a manner that the average adult can understand. That is not the case with this example of Kennedy’s speech discussing the Cuban missile crisis. With using a readability calculator, found at, the level given for the overall dialogue is at a 13.3 grade level. In order to fathom the takeaway of the address, one is required to have post-high school diploma educational experience. With so many U.S. citizens not having adequate literacy skills, information such as content expressed within a public presidential address is too complex and difficult to comprehend for many people. Unfortunately, with information not being understood, it then continues to go un-noticed, leaving many citizens frustrated and confused. If such important information was provided in a plain style, there would be less frustration. Within John F. Kennedy’s public announcement to the Nation, many examples and qualities of the official style are expressed.
            The first, and possibly the most obvious, notable aspect of the official style inside John F. Kennedy’s language is the use slow sentence openings paired with ‘filler’ words. At many occurrences, the wording is overdone and ‘fluffed-up.’ Within the first paragraph of his address to the nation he proclaims, “[w]ithin the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island” (Kennedy). He then follows up by discussing, “[t]he purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere” (Kennedy). There is a multitude of ways he could have stated such simple, non-complex utterances in a plain style. Kennedy chooses to include a filler such as ‘unmistakable evidence has established the fact that…’. Using such diction sounds more official and credible, but it is masking the true message blanketed beneath the actual and factual information. In his follow up sentence, he again uses unnecessary words to his dialogue when he describes, ‘[t]he purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a…’. Kennedy uses the strategy of incorporating slow sentence openings and overall wordy-ness to create an official and credible tone in his dialogue.
            Another note-worthy official stylistic aspect within Kennedy’s speech is overly long and complex sentences. On many occurrences, he constructs sentence that are multiple lines long and contain thirty to eighty words. The most outrageous example of this strategy can be seen when he rambles,
“[b]ut this secret, swift, and extraordinary buildup of Communist missiles--in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy--this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil--is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe” (Kennedy).
This sentence contains a whopping ninety-seven words! By stringing along too many ideas with prepositions to make it shapeless and use of appositives, Kennedy is able to string his audience along for all ninety-seven words. With such an elongated and multi-part sentence, many average listeners were likely jumbled and forgot the punch-line of the sentence. It is worth mentioning that this once specific utterance weighs in at a ludicrous grade level of 35.7. I am sure this is largely due to the overall length of the sentence, but it still requires an individual with beyond graduate level experience to comprehend. I cannot comment on as to why Kennedy, or anyone, would choose to ramble on for ninety-seven words. However, I am confident that that particular excerpt contained too many official style aspects for the average U.S. reader to understand.
            A final example of the official style within John F. Kennedy’s Cuban missile crisis address is the use of passive voice. With using this strategy, the action of the sentence is disguised, and one cannot decipher what action belongs to who or what. Also, by using the passive voice, the speaker is able to flow their extended sentences along with prepositional phrases. He concludes his opening section by stating, “[t]he purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere” (Kennedy). Not only does this particular sentence contain filler words such as ‘none other than to provide…’ but it also displays the passive voice. The reader/listener does not know who or what is providing a nuclear strike. When using vague terminology in the passive voice, people receiving the message spend more time decoding the passive voice, and the overall take-away of the sentence is lost. Kennedy continues to use this mask of the passive voice when he adds, “But now further action is required--and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning” (Kennedy). By stating ‘further action is required’, the listener/reader has no idea as to what actions are required and who is performing said actions. Are they responsible for doing anything or is anything expected of them? By using the passive voice, they are left clueless.

            Within the aforementioned examples and excerpts, as well as John F. Kennedy’s public announcement to the Nation as a whole, many examples and qualities of the official style are expressed. Such use of the official style in a nation-wide address concerning the nation is unnecessary. Not only do U.S. citizens deserve factual information that is not full of jargon and elements of the official style, they deserve information presented to a general audience in a comprehendible plain style.  
     Breanna Lindemuth 

No comments:

Post a Comment