Monday, June 25, 2018

All that BS over formal vs. informal writing (or why the eggplant emoji is my favorite emoji)

Last weekend, I moderated the discussion on Strunk & White's The Elements of Style for the book club. Much as I would have liked to focus on the nitty gritty of this very polarizing book, I chose to talk about the book's relevance. Do people still care about the subjunctive mood? Heck, do they even know what the subjunctive mood is? (I love the subjunctive. If it were possible to use it every time, I would have ran away with it. There's something about the subjunctive. It connotes missed probabilities and unfulfilled wishes and desires.) What about pronoun antecedents? And how do you manage those pesky sexist pronouns without being too wordy or cloying?

So anyway, there we were at the venue last Saturday afternoon when I head someone mention that some instances call for formal writing, and some for informal writing. Ooookaayyy. I think this is, ummm, BS. (Of course, I didn't say that upfront. I was raised right. I'll just write about it behind her back.) Why do you even have to differentiate between these two? Why can't we just pay attention to how effective our writing is, instead of being conscious whether to go formal or informal? Consider:
Dear Andrei Nikolayevich,
Please be informed that the meeting scheduled today has been postponed to Friday, 29 June. Please be guided accordingly.
Dear Gaius Julius Hyginus,
Today's meeting is postponed to Friday, 29 June.
I'm guessing that many people would say that the first example is formal in tone, and the second isn't. Why? Who the hell knows. Perhaps it's the number of words, no? And there's the use of "please." Also, the second sentence bugs me. As if without it, people would be acting, like, without guidance or whatever. I'd go with the second example all the time. You don't even need to tell people that you're informing them. The idea of your sentence is the information itself. When they read it, they're informed. The first example is just dumb, and it perpetuates the idea that being wordy is completely fine.

I'm not saying that the first example is formal. I hate labels. I prefer to think of it as smart writing. It's the kind of writing that people feel comfortable using. One tip I give to people when they're writing to someone is to imagine themselves right in front of the person they're writing to. So it doesn't make sense to say, "Hello, Heraclitus. This is to acknowledge receipt of your invoice sent via email last Thursday." You don't say that in real life, yes? (If you do, I'll poke your eyes out or scoop them with a spoon.) Just go with, "Hello, Babichenkovich. I received your invoice last Thursday." Acknowledge. Receipt. Nauseated.

Anyway, The Elements of Style. I love that book. That book has guided me when I was starting out with my career as an editor. I didn't know anything back then. (I'm a science major; I thought genitives had something to do with penises and vaginas.) I love how the rules are in black and white. There aren't even any explanations for some of them. Interestingly, this was one of the points raised during the discussion—how the authors didn't include any reason for coming up with these rules. But to include those additional sections would just fatten up TEoS. Its pocket size is one of the things that people love about it.

A good friend mentioned that we can group people based on the way we communicate. I forget the exact five groups, but it has something to do with those who are direct, those who put emotion in their writing, and those in-between. He said that I'd probably be in the first group. You think? I can recall the countless times I just replied to an email with "noted" or "gotcha" or "thanks." (You didn't really think I'd reply with, "Thank you for your email. This has been duly noted"? I'd prefer to eat my own barf.) Thank goodness for emojis. Now I can be really extra cheerful and positive and bright and sunshiny by putting a smiley face after "noted." And if I wanna throw people off, I'd use the eggplant emoji. Because nothing confuses people more than being reminded of a schlong. They might probably think, "Does he have a big penis? Is he thinking of penetration?" Newp. I just wanna make a ratatouille.

The best piece of advice from Strunk & White
Because being wordy is evil.