OnWords: Informal vs Formal Language

Feb 18, 2020

When smartphones and online text editors no longer auto-corrected “gonna” and “kinda,” I knew I had to fight back.

It’s not that these constructions are necessarily wrong. Contractions — such as the one at the beginning of the previous sentence — have become acceptable in many circumstances, for example, radio commentaries. “Goodbye” has so long been contracted that most of us have forgotten, or never knew, that it once meant “God be with you.”

Language changes, as it must, to meet the needs of its users.

What we lose, though, when we smear together ”going to,” “kind of,” and “sort of” is speech elevated for purposes of completeness, precision, and seriousness of occasion.

That a student of mine recently said he literally did not know that “gonna” meant “going to” brings the point home: Our linguistic experiences have become so flattened that formal English is sadly unavailable to broad segments of its users.

Importantly, writing communicates across time and easily moves between platforms. A recording might be lost as media and file formats change, but writing can be transferred with a simple toolkit via stable means like vellum and ink.

Formal writing signals to posterity that what’s being communicated is important, and it communicates more easily since formal versions of the language change more slowly than everyday speech.

So, sure, keep saying “gonna” and kinda” — just be sure you know how to translate that into something more formal if need be.

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