V. Make up a dialogue using colloquial words from your lists and from the extracts given in the chapter.

a. In the first dialogue, two undergraduates are dis cussing why one of them has been expelled from his college. (Don't forget that young people use both literary and familiar colloquial words.)

b. In the second dialogue, the parents of the dismissed student are wondering what to do with him. (Older people, as you remember, are apt to be less informal in their choice of words.)


Which Word Should We Choose,

Formal or Informal?


Formal Style

We have already pointed out that formal style is restricted to formal situations. In general, formal words fall into two main groups: words associated with professional communication and a less exclusive group of so-called learned words.

Learned Words

These words are mainly associated with the printed page. It is in this vocabulary stratum that poetry and fiction find their main resources.

The term "learned" is not precise and does not adequately describe the exact characteristics of these words. A somewhat out-of-date term for the same category of words is "bookish", but, as E. Partridge notes, "'book-learned' and 'bookish' are now uncomplimentary. The corresponding complimentaries are 'erudite', 'learned', 'scholarly'. 'Book-learned' and 'bookish' connote 'ignorant of life', however much book-learning one may possess". [30]

The term "learned" includes several heterogeneous subdivisions of words. We find here numerous words that are used in scientific prose and can be identified by their dry, matter-of-fact flavour (e. g. comprise, compile, experimental, heterogeneous, homogeneous, conclusive, divergent, etc.).

To this group also belongs so-called "officialese" (cf. with the R. ). These are the words of the

official, bureaucratic language. E. Partridge in his dictionary Usage and Abusage gives a list of officialese which he thinks should be avoided in speech and in print. Here are some words from Partridge's list: assist (for help), endeavour (for try), proceed (for go), approximately (for about), sufficient (for enough), attired (for dressed), inquire (for ask).

In the same dictionary an official letter from a Government Department is quoted which may very well serve as a typical example of officialese. It goes: "You are authorized to acquire the work in question by purchase through the ordinary trade channels." Which, translated into plain English, would simply mean: "We advise you to buy the book in a shop." [38]

Probably the most interesting subdivision of learned words is represented by the words found in descriptive passages of fiction. These words, which may be called "literary", also have a particular flavour of their own, usually described as "refined". They are mostly polysyllabic words drawn from the Romance languages and, though fully adapted to the English phonetic system, some of them continue to sound singularly foreign. They also seem to retain an aloofness associated with the lofty contexts in which they have been used for centuries. Their very sound seems to create complex and solemn associations. Here are some examples: solitude, sentiment, fascination, fastidiousness, facetiousness, delusion, meditation, felicity, elusive, cordial, illusionary.

There is one further subdivision of learned words: modes of poetic diction. These stand close to the previous group many words from which, in fact, belong to both these categories. Yet, poetic words have a further characteristic a lofty, high-flown, sometimes archaic, colouring:

"Alas! they had been friends in youth; But whispering tongues can poison truth

And constancy lives in realms above; And life is thorny; and youth is vain; And to be wroth with one we love, Doth work like madness in the brain..."


* * *

Though learned words are mainly associated with the printed page, this is not exclusively so. Any educated English-speaking individual is sure to use many learned words not only in his formal letters and professional communication but also in his everyday speech. It is true that sometimes such uses strike a definitely incongruous note as in the following extract:

"You should find no difficulty in obtaining a secretarial post in the city." Carel said "obtaining a post" and not "getting a job". It was part of a bureaucratic manner which, Muriel noticed, he kept reserved for her."

(From The Time of the Angels by I. Murdoch)

Yet, generally speaking, educated people in both modern fiction and real life use learned words quite naturally and their speech is certainly the richer for it.

On the other hand, excessive use of learned elements in conversational speech presents grave hazards. Utterances overloaded with such words have pretensions of "refinement" and "elegance" but achieve the exact opposite verging on the absurd and ridiculous.

Writers use this phenomenon for stylistic purposes. When a character in a book or in a play uses too many learned words, the obvious inappropriateness of his speech in an informal situation produces a comic effect,

When Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest recommends Jack "to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before

the season is over", the statement is funny because the seriousness and precision of the language seems comically out-of-keeping with the informal situation.

The following quotations speak for themselves. (The "learned" elements are italicized.)

Gwendolen in the same play declaring her love for Jack says:

"The story of your romantic origin as related to me by mamma, with unpleasing comments, has naturally stirred the deepest fibres of my nature. Your Christian name has an irresistible fascination. The simplicity of your nature makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me..."

Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion by B. Shaw engaging in traditional English small talk answers the question "Will it rain, do you think?" in the following way:

"The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation."

Freddie Widgeon, a silly young man in Fate by Wodehouse, trying to defend a woman whom he thinks unduly insulted, says:

"You are aspersing a woman's name," he said.


"Don't attempt to evade the issue," said Freddie...

"You are aspersing a woman's name, and what

makes it worse you are doing it in a bowler-hat.

Take off that hat," said Freddie.

However any suggestion that learned words are suitable only for comic purposes, would be quite wrong. It is in this vocabulary stratum that writers and poets find their most vivid paints and colours, and not only their humorous effects.

Here is an extract from Iris Murdoch describing a summer evening:

"... A bat had noiselessly appropriated the space between, a flittering weaving almost substanceless fragment of the invading dark. ... A collared dove groaned once in the final light. A pink rose reclining upon the big box hedge glimmered with contained electric luminosity. A blackbird, trying to metamorphose itself into a nightingale, began a long passionate complicated song." (From The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by I. Murdoch)

This piece of modern prose is rich in literary words which underline its stern and reserved beauty. One might even say that it is the selection of words which makes the description what it is: serious, devoid of cheap sentimentality and yet charged with grave forebodings and tense expectation.

* * *

What role do learned words play in the language-learning and language-teaching process? Should they be taught? Should they be included in the students' functional and recognition vocabularies?

As far as passive recognition is concerned, the answer is clear: without knowing some learned words, it is even impossible to read fiction (not to mention scientific articles) or to listen to lectures delivered in the foreign language.

It is also true that some of these words should be carefully selected and "activised" to become part of the students' functional vocabulary.

However, for teaching purposes, they should be chosen with care and introduced into the students' speech in moderation, for, as we have seen, the excessive use of learned words may lead to absurdities.

Archaic and Obsolete Words

These words stand close to the "learned" words, particularly to the modes of poetic diction. Learned words and archaisms are both associated with the printed page. Yet, as we have seen, many learned words may also be used in conversational situations. This cannot happen with archaisms, which are invariably restricted to the printed page. These words are moribund, already partly or fully out of circulation, rejected by the living language. Their last refuge is in historical novels (whose authors use them to create a particular period atmosphere) and, of course, in poetry which is rather conservative in its choice of words.

Thou and thy, aye ("yes") and nay ("no") are certainly archaic and long since rejected by common usage, yet poets use them even today. (We also find the same four words and many other archaisms among dialectisms, which is quite natural, as dialects are also conservative and retain archaic words and structures.)

Numerous archaisms can be found in Shakespeare, but it should be taken into consideration that what appear to us today as archaisms in the works of Shakespeare, are in fact examples of everyday language of Shakespeare's time.

There are several such archaisms in Viola's speech from Twelfth Night:

"There is a fair behaviour in thee, Captain, And though that nature with a beauteous wall Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee I will believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character. I prithee and I'll pay thee bounteously Conceal me what I am, and be my aid For such disguise as haply shall become The form of my intent..."

(Act I, Sc. 2) 32

Further examples of archaisms are: morn (for morning), eve (for evening), moon (for month), damsel (for girl), errant (for wandering, e. g. errant knights), etc.

Sometimes, an archaic word may undergo a sudden revival. So, the formerly archaic kin (for relatives; one's family) is now current in American usage.

The terms "archaic" and "obsolete" are used more or less indiscriminately by some authors. Others make a distinction between them using the term "obsolete" for words which have completely gone out of use. The Random House Dictionary defines an obsolete word as one "no longer in use, esp. out of use for at least a century", whereas an archaism is referred to as "current in an earlier time but rare in present usage". [46]

It should be pointed out that the borderline between "obsolete" and "archaic" is vague and uncertain, and in many cases it is difficult to decide to which of the groups this or that word belongs.

There is a further term for words which are no longer in use: historisms. By this we mean words denoting objects and phenomena which are, things of the past and no longer exist.

Professional Terminology

Hundreds of thousands of words belong to special scientific, professional or trade terminological systems and are not used or even understood by people outside the particular speciality. Every field of modern activity has its specialised vocabulary. There is a special medical vocabulary, and similarly special terminologies for psychology, botany, music, linguistics, teaching methods and many others.

Term, as traditionally understood, is a word or a word-group which is specifically employed by a particular branch of science,

2. 33


technology, trade or the arts to convey a concept peculiar to this particular activity.

So, bilingual, interdental, labialization, palatalization, glottal stop, descending scale are terms of theoretical phonetics.

There are several controversial problems in the field of terminology. The first is the puzzling question of whether a term loses its terminological status when it comes into common usage. Today this is a frequent occurrence, as various elements of the media of communication (TV, radio, popular magazines, science fiction, etc.) ply people with scraps of knowledge from different scientific fields, technology and the arts. It is quite natural that under the circumstances numerous terms pass into general usage without losing connection with their specific fields.

There are linguists in whose opinion terms are only those words which have retained their exclusiveness and are not known or recognised outside their specific sphere. From this point of view, words associated with the medical sphere, such as unit (" "), theatre (""), contact (" ") are no longer medical terms as they are in more or less common usage. The same is certainly true about names of diseases or medicines, with the exception of some rare or recent ones only known to medical men.

There is yet another point of view, according to which any terminological system is supposed to include all the words and word-groups conveying concept peculiar to a particular branch of knowledge, regardless of their exclusiveness. Modern research of various terminological systems has shown that there is no impenetrable wall between terminology and the general language system. To the contrary, terminologies seem to obey the same rules and laws as other vocabulary

strata. Therefore, exchange between terminological systems and the "common" vocabulary is quite normal, and it would be wrong to regard a term as something "special" and standing apart.

Two other controversial problems deal with polysemy and synonymy.

According to some linguists, an "ideal" term should be monosemantic (i. e. it should have only one meaning). Polysemantic terms may lead to misunderstanding, and that is a serious shortcoming in professional communication. This requirement seems quite reasonable, yet facts of the language do not meet it. There are, in actual fact, numerous polysemantic terms. The linguistic term semantics may mean both the meaning of a word and the branch of lexicology studying meanings. In the terminology of painting, the term colour may denote hue ("") and, at the same time, stuff used for colouring ("").

The same is true about synonymy in terminological systems. There are scholars who insist that terms should not have synonyms because, consequently, scientists and other specialists would name the same objects and phenomena in their field by different terms and would not be able to come to any agreement. This may be true. But, in fact, terms do possess synonyms. In painting, the same term colour has several synonyms in both its meanings: hue, shade, tint, tinge in the first meaning ("") and paint, tint, dye in the second ("").

Basic Vocabulary

These words are stylistically neutral, and, in this respect, opposed to formal and informal words described above. Their stylistic neutrality makes it possible to use them in all kinds of situations, both formal and informal, in verbal and written communication.

Certain of the stylistically marked vocabulary strata are, in a way, exclusive: professional terminology is used mostly by representatives of the professions; dialects are regional; slang is favoured mostly by the young and the uneducated. Not so basic vocabulary. These words are used every day, everywhere and by everybody, regardless of profession, occupation, educational level, age group or geographical location. These are words without which no human communication would be possible as they denote objects and phenomena of everyday importance (e. g. house, bread, summer, winter, child, mother, green, difficult, to go, to stand, etc.).

The basic vocabulary is the central group of the vocabulary, its historical foundation and living core. That is why words of this stratum show a considerably greater stability in comparison with words of the other strata, especially informal.

Basic vocabulary words can be recognised not only by their stylistic neutrality but, also, by entire lack of other connotations (i. e. attendant meanings). Their meanings are broad, general and directly convey the concept, without supplying any additional information.

For instance, the verb to walk means merely "to move from place to place on foot" whereas in the meanings of its synonyms to stride, to stroll, to trot, to stagger and others, some additional information is encoded as they each describe a different manner of walking, a different gait, tempo, purposefulness or lack of purpose and even length of paces (see Ch. 10). Thus, to walk, with its direct broad meaning, is a typical basic vocabulary word, and its synonyms, with their elaborate additional information encoded in their meanings, belong to the periphery of the vocabulary.

The basic vocabulary and the stylistically marked strata of the vocabulary do not exist independently but are closely interrelated. Most stylistically marked words have their neutral counterparts in the basic vocabulary. (Terms are an exception in this respect.) On the other hand, colloquialisms may have their counterparts among learned words, most slang has counterparts both among colloquialisms and learned words. Archaisms, naturally, have their modern equivalents at least in some of the other groups.

The table gives some examples of such synonyms belonging to different stylistic strata.


Basic vocabulary Informal Formal
begin start, get started commence
continue go on, get on proceed
end finish, be through, be over terminate
child, baby kid, brat, beam (dial.) infant, babe (poet.)

In teaching a foreign language, the basic vocabulary words comprise the first and absolutely essential part of the students' functional and recognition vocabularies. They constitute the beginner's vocabulary. Yet, to restrict the student to the basic vocabulary would mean to deprive his speech of colour, expressive force and emotive shades, for, if basic vocabulary words are absolutely necessary, they also decidedly lack something: they are not at all the kind of words to tempt a writer or a poet. Actually, if the language had none other but basic vocabulary words, fiction would be hardly readable, and poetry simply non-existent.

The following table sums up the description of the stylistic strata of English vocabulary.



Stylistically-neutral words Stylistically-marked words
Informal Formal
Basic vocabulary I. Colloquial words I. Learned words
  A. literary, A. literary,
  B. familiar, B. words of scientific prose,
  C. low. C. officialese,
  II. Slang words. D. modes of poetic diction.
  III. Dialect words. II. Archaic and obsolete words.
    III. Professional


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