Style and Register

Some listeners say they get funny looks when they use proper English. Should they change the way they speak?

Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #345


Sometimes listeners tell me that when they talk to other people and use standard English grammar, they’re perceived as stuck up or pretentious. But if they know the difference between “who” and “whom,” for example, why should they pretend not to know? Why should you have to, as one listener put it, “dumb things down for people we’re speaking to”? Today, I’ll tell you why adjusting your speech for different audiences can be smart, not dumb.

Figure Out What’s Appropriate

We do many things in different ways depending on whom we’re with. For example, you probably wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a job interview. If you go to a job interview dressed in a business suit instead of a tuxedo, that doesn’t mean that you’re dumbing down the way you dress. It means you know what kind of attire is appropriate for the situation. You also probably wouldn’t wear pajamas to a family Thanksgiving dinner. If you change out of those pajamas and put on some of your nicer clothes, that doesn’t mean you’re being sneaky and hiding the way you really dress. It means you know that pajamas are appropriate in some situations, while other clothes are appropriate when you’re visiting with relatives you don’t often get to see.

As for language, you can’t assume that standard English with schoolbook grammar is the only right way to speak for any occasion. If you always used “whom” when the rules you’ve learned call for it, it would be like wearing a tuxedo all the time, at weddings and ballroom-dance competitions, at job interviews and Thanksgiving dinners, at the pool and in bed. It would not be a sign of education and high standards; it would probably seem a little weird.

Most People Use Different Registers in Different Situations

The varieties of language you use in different areas of your life are known as speaking or writing styles. Some particularly specialized styles, such as those used in the courtroom, or poetry, or the operating room, are known as registers. Being able to switch smoothly and appropriately between different styles or registers is a skill; it’s not always easy to do.

For example, earlier I had to decide whether to say “depending on who you’re with” or “depending on whom you’re with.” I definitely wasn’t going to use “depending on with whom you are,” because that’s horribly awkward and there’s no need to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition-- that’s thoroughly discredited “rule”--but I still had to make a judgment call about which wording would work better in an informal podcast about grammar.

Switching registers is even more difficult when you don’t know what style or register is expected. It’s like getting an invitation to a party and not knowing how people are expected to dress. You might spend quite some time wondering what to wear. You don’t want to look disrespectful by showing up underdressed, and you probably don’t want to stand out by being overdressed, either. What do you do?

Lurk and Listen

At this point I want to switch from clothes to another analogy. Suppose you have joined an online community, and you don’t know what kind of behavior is considered polite or rude. Unlike when you walk into a party and it’s too late to change how you’ve dressed for it, online communities allow you to lie low while you absorb the culture. Experts recommend that newcomers spend a few days or weeks “lurking”—that is, reading other people’s messages and comments so you can develop a sense for what kind of questions are appropriate, observe who is respected and who is only tolerated, and maybe get hip to a few of the inside jokes. So my first piece of advice for using the right style or register of English in real life is to lie low and start slow.

The equivalent of lurking in this case is to listen more than you talk. I understand this is good advice in any case and the Public Speaker recently did a podcast about how to improve your listening skills.  When you do talk, use language that doesn’t set off alarms as something unusual. The good news is that most of standard English works fine for this purpose. Putting singular subjects with singular verbs and plurals with plurals is not going to make you sound weird. If you ask, “Where’s Squiggly?” instead of “Where’s Squiggly at?,” I doubt anyone would find it unusual. You could even say, “I wish Squiggly were here” instead of “I wish Squiggly was here,” and probably not raise anyone’s eyebrows.

The next step is what to do when you have noticed what kind of language the people you’re with are using. If it’s a style you recognize and are familiar with, then there’s no problem. Feel free to speak it, and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from having a piece of culture in common. It’s like discovering that they all like the same kind of books that you do or have the same hobby.

Be Yourself

But what if it’s a style you’re not familiar with? This brings me to my second piece of advice: Don’t be who you’re not. Suppose you’re with a group of people who like to use “leverage” as a verb, and employs expressions such as “circle back” and “pick the low-hanging fruit.” If that kind of language just doesn’t fit you, don’t try to use it, at least not until you have absorbed enough of the culture to do so convincingly. The people you’re with probably won’t even notice the absence of these expressions in your speech. Even if they do notice, it’s better to be noticed for not using their language style than for using it uncomfortably and unconvincingly. That would be like realizing everyone in the crowd liked a particular book that you hadn’t read, pretending you really had read it, and getting caught in a lie. It’s better to be seen as not part of the in-group than as a fake.

Since I’m advising you to be yourself, what if using certain words or grammar features is part of who you are? To use our “whom” example again, what if you’ve learned how to use “whom” so well that it’s part of your everyday speech style? If you suppress something that’s natural to you, are you not being true to yourself?

Register Switching Is a Skill

Well, by that logic, you could argue that trying to stop biting your nails counts as not being true to yourself. People consciously change their habits all the time without experiencing identity crises. It will probably be difficult. Switching between registers, and for that matter, between dialects, is a skill, and some people are better at it than others. Those who are very good at it have reputations as savvy communicators and many national politicians try to do it to connect better with their audiences as they travel around the country. 

However, maybe using “whom” or some other older grammar feature is not something you want to change. Are you doomed to offend some of your listeners?

Sometimes “Whom” Is Like a Bow Tie

Not necessarily. Let’s return to the clothing analogy. Consider bow ties. Like “whom,” they’re considered somewhat formal and old-fashioned. If you wear one and you’re not in a wedding or some other special event, it will look a bit out of place. However, some people always wear a bow tie, such as Ohio State University president Gordon Gee, Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower,* and my brother’s friend Julian.. These people don’t apologize for wearing bow ties. They don’t hint that you should be wearing a bow tie, too. They just rock their bow ties with conviction and flair, and people accept that as part of who they are. If you have a big, friendly personality, and pronounce your “whom”s the way Gordon, Jesse, and Julian wear their bow ties, you just might get away with it.

But even these guys don’t wear a tuxedo every day. For everyday use, it’s OK to let go of some of the features of standard English grammar that put you in a more formal register than you need.

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.

*Jesse Sheidlower clarifies his bow-tie habits:  "I wear bow ties fairly rarely. Partly because when I do people assume I always wear them."


NASA Visualization Explorer (iPad app) image, NASA Goddard Space Flight at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

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