What constitutes Official Style? For some it is merely an issue of grammar and sentence structure. However, I propose that Official Style possesses something else: An unbiased, toneless, weak voice. To say that Official Style is nothing more than grammar and sentence orientated is to suggest that to speak plainly is to “dumb down” ones statement. By labeling Official Style as such we have inadvertently labeled Plain Style as inherently lacking academic properties on a professional level. And while I agree that on a regular basis Plain Style is seen as being simple, brief, and clear, I want to point out that Plain Style can also match up with Official Style on the same reading level. But this invites the debate of what is meant by Official Style and what is Plain Style and more importantly where is the line between them. To show this debate, here is a sentence done in the Official Style.
“It has become apparent through a series of unfortunate and unforeseen incidences that have taken place over the course of several weeks that it is in the best interest of the company, Johnson Bros. LLC., that Mr. Johnson be asked to resign his position as regional manager on the basis that his lack of social qualifications is a detriment to workplace moral.”
That sentence is roughly thirty words long and has a reading grade level of fifteen. It is without a doubt Official Style; it has appositives, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases and the list goes on. But what if we changed one thing about it; would it still be considered Official Style?
“It has become apparent through a series of unfortunate and unforeseen incidences that have taken place over the course of several weeks that it is in the best interest of the company, Johnson Bros. LLC., that Mr. Johnson be asked to resign his position as regional manager on the basis that he is a disgusting pig that has no sense of personal space.”
The sentence is still thirty words long and has maintained its original reading grade level. The sentence is still over-worded and takes way too long to get to the main point, but is it still Official Style? I would argue that no, it is no longer written in the Official Style, or at least, it is no longer exclusively written in the Official Style. I see it as lingering in the gray zone between the two categories. Reason being is when I think of Official Style I understand that the ideas delivered by the Official Style can be powerful and controversial, however the words themselves rarely, if ever, carry poignancy by themselves. All three genres of writing can deliver the same message, but it is the style in which they use that determines what genre they belong to. When I look at Official Style vs. Plain Style I see it as the relationship between oil and water: it takes very little oil to contaminate a very large portion of water. It doesn’t take much Plain Style wording in an Official Style setting to convince an audience that there was a massive shift in tone.
To exemplify this in a “real world setting” we’ll look at an opinion piece from Al Jazeera regarding the barbaric nature of the Mexican Drug Cartels as opposed to the similarly barbaric nature of ISIL over the course of the last year.
The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have characterized ISIL’s crimes as unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. They argue that the group’s barbarism is intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview that dominates the Muslim world. The ignorance of these claims is stunning.
-Musa al-Gharbi, Al Jazeera America, Mexican Drug Cartels Are Worse Than ISIL
The sentences in this paragraph vary from being official or plain but the overall tone is inherently plain. It uses powerful words that grab the audience’s attention but it still maintains a grade level of thirteen. The reason this author chose to use such powerful and persuasive language (other than the fact that the subject causes such emotions to surface) is that this is an opinion piece and therefore cannot hide behind the passive and, frankly, weak language of Official Style. Most news outlets choose to use Official Style because it conceals bias and has an air of professionalism to it, which is what the audience expects and what they deserve. To use Plain Style in journalism is to lower an organizations standards to those of tabloids and celebrity magazines. By placing the word “Opinion” at the top of an article you remove the label of journalism and are now free to be as biased and opinionated as you wish. And Plain Style is the best style for this because the point of an opinion piece is to convince the audience of the author’s point of view. The best way to persuade an audience is by using powerful words that pop on the page and concise sentences that get to the point quickly. But that doesn’t mean that academic writing and complex vernacular have to be sacrificed. This paragraph is from the same article.
Some may argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat than ISIL because ISIL is unified around an ideology, which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is not true.
--Musa al-Gharbi, Al Jazeera America, Mexican Drug Cartels Are Worse Than ISIL
That first sentence clocks in at a reading grade level of nineteen, but there are numerous sentences scattered throughout the article that come in at a much lower reading level and exhibit blunt and colorful word choices.
Which brings me to my main point: This article, while containing Official Style sentences and irregular vernacular, is still inherently written in the Plain Style. Even if an article is primarily written in the Official Style I find that a few select powerful and attention getting words can drastically alter the audiences’ views on the piece. I can accept that this article is a combination of the two styles, maybe even all three, but I cannot concede that it is exclusively written in the Official Style.