Exercises for Words

Written Exercises


On the next tab, you’ll find the first few sentences of an article, which originally appeared on CNN.com (http://money.cnn.com/2013/10/15/technology/blackberry-letter/index.html). First, identify any informal words that are included. Next, identify words that are particularly formal (which you might avoid if you were having a friendly, informal conversation) and see if you can come up with less formal words and phrases to substitute for these.

Article #1

BlackBerry has appealed directly to its customers to stay loyal, publishing an open letter in newspapers around the world Tuesday that touts its technology and financial position. The ad, published on the company’s website and in 30 publications in nine countries, stresses that the embattled smartphone maker has substantial cash on hand and no debt.

The letter also talks up Blackberry’s social network, security features and corporate appeal. “You can continue to count on BlackBerry,” the letter declares. What the ad does not mention is that Blackberry is for sale and has received a preliminary $4.7 billion buyout offer from Fairfax Financial.

“These are no doubt challenging times for us and we don’t underestimate the situation or ignore the challenges we are facing,” the ad acknowledges. “We are making the difficult changes necessary to strengthen BlackBerry.”

Our Answers to #1

The article is not as formal as possible: we see a repeated abbreviation (ad) and a couple of phrasal verbs (talk up, count on). CNN appears to be actively avoiding formality in some cases (e.g., talking about having “cash on hand” as opposed to “liquid assets”).  Nonetheless, there are several formal words that could sound pompous in conversation.  Some words we’d recommend avoiding in casual conversation (and suggestions for substitutions):

  • “touts” (you could again use the phrasal verb talk up or another close synonym such as brag, boast, etc.)
  • “embattled”  (in trouble, troubled, under fire, under siege, etc.)
  • “acknowledges”  (admits, or just says)
  • No single word in “appealed directly to its customers to stay loyal”  seems overly formal, but all of these Latinate terms together definitely create a stilted, formal feel.  (Compare with “begged  (or asked) customers to stick with them.” )
  • Likewise, it would certainly be much less formal than “has substantial cash” to say they had “a lot of cash” or “a great deal of cash” or “tons of money.”
  • Using contractions where possible (doesn’t in place of does not, e.g.) would also reduce the formality level.

Instructions for #2

This time, we’ve got a few sentences from an academic text, which is deliberately extremely formal. If you were to speak this way to a friend, you would sound extremely stiff and unfriendly. Identify words and phrases that are particularly formal which you might avoid if you were having a friendly, informal conversation, and see if you can come up with less formal words and phrases to substitute for these.

Article #2

The language used to convey mathematical ideas to students has become a topic of increased concern to mathematics educators in recent years. In the United States this concern has risen in part because of a continuing growth in the number of students in mathematics classes who have a limited proficiency in English. […] An inadequate grasp of the language of instruction is a major source of underachievement in school.

from Cuevas, Gilberto J. (1984) Mathematics learning in English as a second language. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 15(2): 134-144.

Our Answers to #2

  • “Mathematics” is obviously a formal variant of “math.”
  • “Educators” is a very formal variant of “teachers.”
  • “Convey(ing) ideas to students” and “instruction” are both formal ways of referring to “teaching.”
  • “Language used” is not overly formal, but is certainly more so than “how (we) speak” or “the way (we) talk.”
  • “A topic of increased concern” is rather stiff, as opposed to “something we’re increasingly concerned about”or “something we worry about more and more.”
  • “In recent years” is somewhat formal, as opposed to “lately.”
  • “A continuing growth in the number of…” is quite formal; “there are growing numbers of…” is less so, and “there are more and more” is even less so.
  • “Who have limited English proficiency” and “an inadequate grasp of the language” both translate less formally to “who don’t speak English very well.”
  • “A major source” is not awkwardly formal — I wouldn’t necessarily avoid it in a casual conversation — but could be less formally expressed as “a main reason,” “one of the main causes,” or (very informally) “a big reason why.”
  • “Underachievement in schools” is a formal way of saying that “students aren’t doing well” or that “students aren’t learning.”

Putting this all together, I might say to a friend that “Math teachers are increasingly concerned about the language they use to teach. There are more and more students in math classes who don’t speak English very well, and if they can’t understand the language the teacher is using, they can’t learn properly.” Note that I don’t have to aim for maximum informality to create a friendly tone!

Video Exercises

Instructions #1

In the video below, the young woman is attempting to speak formally, as part of a job interview. Can you identify any formal words that she chose to try to impress the interviewer, words that she probably doesn’t use everyday with friends? Did she use any informal words that, even in this more formal context, show her to be a friendly, approachable person? (You’ll probably need to watch the video more than once to catch them all; pausing it repeatedly as you write down the words and phrases that you notice and think about the more or less formal synonyms she could have used.)

Discussion of Formal Words in video #1

Even though she was probably more focused on the content of her reply (showing her to be a “team player,” and a responsible,  ethical, discreet employee, not giving away identifying details about the client causing the conflict), she still paid attention to her word choices. Did you catch all of these?

  • She was “in sales,” not “selling (stuff).”
  • She had to “confront a client,”  not handle, manage, tackle (etc.) someone.
  • The client was “using the product unethically,”  not ripping someone off or cheating.  (She’s being discreet as well as formal here, not revealing identifying details, so we don’t know exactly what less formal alternatives would have worked.)
  • The client was “violating copyright law,”  not breaking it.
  • “Revenue” is more formal than profit or income would have been.
  • “Discussed” is not terribly formal, but more so than the common phrasal verbs talked about or went over.
  • She had to “confront the situation,”  not just deal with, handle or manage it.
  • They “reached an agreement,” as opposed to just agreeing or deciding.
  • Finally, “as well” is a formal variant of too.

Discussion of Informal Words in video #1

Although she is using a lot of formal vocabulary in order to impress a potential employer, she is also careful not to overdo this, as she does not want to appear stiff or pompous. Hence, we can find quite a few informalities as well:

  • “Me and a co-worker had a disagreement.”  Using the object pronoun “me” in subject position is very informal, as it is prescriptively incorrect.  (“A co-worker and I” would be the preferred choice.) It is not clear whether this is a deliberate attempt at informality or whether this is part of her normal dialect.  Either way, it’s a bit risky: if the interviewer has strong feelings about “good” English, this could be seen as an egregious error and detract from the competent image the young woman is trying to project.
  • “They”  is used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, agreeing with “a client” (singular), which is informal, but again, discreet, since it avoids giving identifying information about the client.
  • The client “thought it was okay,” as opposed to, say, believing it to be acceptable,  permissible or not problematic.
  • The client “bought” the product as opposed to purchasing it.
  • The company “got” the revenue as opposed to receiving it.
  • The co-workers didn’t want to “bring it to our boss,” as opposed to approaching or consulting their supervisor.
  • They ended up “going over” the company policy, as opposed to reviewing it.

If she had used all this informal vocabulary without as much formal vocabulary, she might have appeared less intelligent and less interested in the position. It was a good mix!

Instructions #2

In this video, the same young woman tells essentially the same story to a friend. (Of course, as in any normal conversation, she doesn’t get it all out at once, but takes turns with her friends.) Can you identify informal words she used with her friend that she did not use in the job interview?

Discussion of Words in video #2

Obviously, both women are being very informal here, but we’ll concentrate on the same woman we saw in the previous video.  You’ll notice that she only uses a very small amount of formal speech or jargon (still talking about “violating company policy,” e.g.).  The informalities are much more abundant!

  • She uses “man” as an interjection more than once.
  • She uses “like” more than once.
  • She swears more than once.
  • She refers to her co-worker as an “idiot” more than once. While the word itself is not noticeably informal (as opposed to synonyms such as  ass or doofus, e.g.), the young woman would not have wanted to appear so negative and judgmental in the job interview.
  • She says her week has been “rough.”
  • She talks about “doing unethical things” (as opposed to the more formal acting unethically that she used in the job interview).
  • She talks about “getting in legal trouble,”  as opposed to say, having legal repercussions, being legally responsible, or being held legally liable.
  • She uses the idiom “ratting out” a co-worker, as opposed to informing on, revealing, bringing it to the supervisor’s attention, etc.

Notice, too, that in addition to informal word choice, she also uses frequent rhetorical questions (What the fuck, man? What the the hell? What do you do then? What am I supposed to do?).  This gives the appearance of give-and-take in a conversation, even while the speaker continues to hold the floor. While rhetorical questions often feature in formal speech, they typically do so to introduce a new idea or topic. When they are used to express emotion (in this case, frustration), they are quite informal.