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Living Better with Better Grammar

Stuck in English class, you probably thought that grammar was invented just to give teachers something to test. But in fact grammar — or to be more precise, formal grammar instruction — exists to help you express yourself clearly. Without a thorough knowledge of grammar, a little thread of doubt will weave its way across your speech and writing. Part of your mind will string words together, and another part will ask, Is that correct? Inevitably, the doubts will show.

Better grammar sounds like a great idea, but better is tough to pin down. Why? Because the language of choice depends on your situation. For instance, imagine that you're hungry. What do you say?

Wanna get something to eat?

Do you feel like getting a sandwich?

Will you accompany me to the dining room?

These three statements illustrate the three Englishes of everyday life: friendspeak, conversational English, and formal English. Before you choose which kind of English to use, you need to know where you are and what's going on. Most important, you need to know your audience.

Wanna get something to eat? Friendspeak

Friendspeak is informal and filled with slang. Its sentence structure breaks all the rules that English teachers love. It's the language of I know you and you know me and we can relax together. In friendspeak the speakers are on the same level. They have nothing to prove to each other, and they're comfortable with each other's mistakes. In fact, they make some mistakes on purpose, just to distinguish their personal conversation from what they say on other occasions. Here's a conversation in friendspeak:

Me and him are going to the gym. Wanna come?

He's like, I did 60 pushups, and I go like, no way.

I mean, what's he think? We're stupid or something? Sixty? More like one.

Yeah, I know. In his dreams he did 60.

The preceding conversation may not make perfect sense to everyone, but the participants understand it quite well. Because they both know the whole situation (the guy they're talking about gets muscle cramps after 4 seconds of exercise), they can talk in shorthand.

You don't need to study grammar to perfect friendspeak. You already know it. In fact, you've probably created a version of it with your best buds.

Do you feel like getting a sandwich? Conversational English

A step up from friendspeak is conversational English. Although not quite friendspeak, conversational English includes some friendliness. Conversational English doesn't stray too far from your English class rules, but it does break some. For example, it says that you can relax, but not completely, and it's the tone of most everyday speech, especially between equals. Conversational English is — no shock here — usually for conversations, not for writing. Specifically, conversational English is appropriate in

  • Chats with family members, neighbors, acquaintances.
  • Informal conversations with teachers and co-workers.
  • Friendly conversations (if there are any) with supervisors.
  • Notes and e-mails to friends.
  • Comments in Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and so on.
  • Friendly letters to relatives.

Conversational English has a breezy sound. Letters are dropped in contractions (don't, I'll, would've, and so forth). You also drop words (Got a match? See you later. Be there soon. and so on). In written form, conversational English relaxes the punctuation rules, too. Sentences run together, dashes connect all sorts of things, and half sentences pop up regularly.

Will you accompany me to the dining room? Formal English

You're now at the pickiest end of the language spectrum: formal, grammatically correct speech and writing. Formal English displays the fact that you have an advanced vocabulary and knowledge of etiquette. You may use formal English when you have less power, importance, and/or status than the other person in the conversation. Formal English shows that you've trotted out your best behavior in his or her honor. You may also speak or write in formal English when you have more power, importance, and/or status than the other person. The goal of using formal English is to impress, to create a tone of dignity, or to provide a suitable role model for someone who is still learning. Situations that call for formal English include

  • Business letters (from or between businesses as well as from individuals to businesses).
  • Letters to government officials.
  • Office memos.
  • Reports.
  • Homework.
  • Notes or letters to teachers.
  • Speeches, presentations, oral reports.
  • Important conversations (for example, job interviews, college interviews, parole hearings, congressional inquiries, inquisitions, sessions with the principal in which you explain that unfortunate incident with the stapler, and so on).

Think of formal English as a business suit. If you're in a situation where you want to look your best, you're also in a situation where your words matter. In business, homework, or any situation in which you're being judged, use formal English.

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