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Sunita Anne Abraham (2017) adapted from

Abraham, S. A. (2012). Designing Arguments: Invention, Organisation, Style.

Using an Appropriate Style

Just as we adapt our clothing style, depending on WHAT were doing & with WHOM, we
adapt our linguistic style to project a VOICE (persona / avatar) suited to our purpose.


Whats the relationship between style and tone? Think of style as your face (which remains
constant), and tone as the expressions flitting across your face from moment to moment
(now smiling, now frowning, now quizzical, etc.).

Whats a good analogy for analyzing style? GPS tracking

GPS parameters Style parameters
Latitude Power relations
Longitude Social distance
Elevation Activity zone


Personal Impersonal


Figure 1: The three style clines

Style Parameter Style Clines What each style projects

Power relations between Informal style Egalitarian relationship
communicator & audience Formal style Hierarchical relationship
Social distance between Personal style Small social distance
communicator & audience Impersonal style Large social distance
Activity in which
Vernacular style Private activity zone
communicator & audience
Technical style Specialist activity zone
are engaged
Table 1: The three style clines and what each style projects

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Sunita Anne Abraham (2017) adapted from
Abraham, S. A. (2012). Designing Arguments: Invention, Organisation, Style.

We can distinguish three activity zones based on WHAT were doing and with WHOM.

Activity Zone Doing WHAT with WHOM Preferred Style

Talking about private matters
Private Vernacular
with friends or family

Talking about public issues Blend of

with a general audience Vernacular + Technical

Talking about domain-specific issues

Specialist Technical
with fellow specialists
Table 2: The preferred style for each activity zone
Adept communicators combine the three style clines (personal-impersonal, informal-
formal, vernacular-technical) in different ways to create the VOICE (persona / avatar)
best suited to their communicative purpose. At one end of the continuum, we have the
personal-informal-vernacular style we associate with intimacy (e.g. the voice of a parent
or close friend). At the other end, we have the impersonal-formal-technical style we
associate with detachment (e.g. the voice of scientist, analyst or clinician). In between lie
other voices (avatars) you can project, by blending the three style clines (personal-
impersonal, informal-formal, vernacular-technical) in creative ways.


Personal Impersonal
Informal Formal
Vernacular Technical
Figure 3: Intimate voice and Detached voice at opposite ends of the style continuum
form form
Tables 3 to 5 highlight the characteristic diction and syntax of each style cline (formal-
informal, personal-impersonal, vernacular-technical).

Features Informal Style Formal Style

Favours nicknames / first names, Favours full names and titles,
slang and abbreviations NO slang, NO abbreviations
Yo, Prof A! Good morning, Professor Abraham
Our grads like bikes. Our graduates like bicycles.
Favours non-standard grammar Favours standard grammar and
and contractions NO contractions
I aint goin. I am not going.
She isnt married. She is not married.
Table 3: Informal vs. Formal Style

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Sunita Anne Abraham (2017) adapted from
Abraham, S. A. (2012). Designing Arguments: Invention, Organisation, Style.

Features Personal Style Impersonal Style

DICTION Addresses reader by name Does NOT address reader by name
Example Dear Madam Tan Dear Madam

Uses Address mode: talks TO Uses Report mode: talks ABOUT

SYNTAX audience, using 1st & 2nd person people, using 3rd person pronouns
pronouns (Me/We You) (He / She / It / They)

You may be wondering why I chose Readers may be wondering why this
the option I did. author chose the option she did.
Table 4: Personal vs. Impersonal Style

Features Vernacular Style Technical Style

Favours everyday words with Favours specialist words with
Germanic roots Latin or Greek roots
baby embryo, foetus, infant
Examples a killing a homicide
watched observed
Favours active voice and Favours passive voice and [link verbs +
dynamic verbs nominalisation]
Hornworms vary a lot in how Hornworm growth shows significant
they grow. variation.
I talked to him, and found him Conversation with the candidate revealed
generally incompetent. So, I general incompetence with the resultant
fired him. action of termination.
Table 5: Vernacular vs. Technical Style

Vernacular style tends to be action-driven, focusing on Who did What (to Whom).
Technical style tends to be concept-driven, employing nominalisation (the process of
turning verbs into nouns) and passivisation to minimize human agency.

To learn more about the origins of English, watch the Open University video
The History of English in Ten Minutes

Can you identify the style of these expressions?

Dear Professor
Dear Professor Abraham
Dear Prof
Dear Prof A

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