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In some ways people learning English have it easier than those learning German or French or an Asian language. Because American culture is so popular and so pervasive, many people see and hear English every day. For example, in Germany there has been a big increase recently in the number of television or newspaper advertisements that are partly or wholly in English, and a majority of the pop music on the radio is in English. [More] This constant exposure to English obviously will help to speed up the learning process.

However, there is a potential problem in learning English this way. You must be very careful with the words you have heard or seen because it is easy to use them in the wrong context. For example, you have heard the word kids so many times that you think it is a synonym for children (in the same way that easy and simple are synonyms). Yet when you ask your rather reserved English company chairman at a business function, How are the wife and kids?, he reacts with some irritation. This is because he feels that you have been too familiar with him. The words the wife (instead of your wife, or even your lady wife) and kids are informal words but the situation in which you have used it is a formal one. This kind of mistake is a mistake of style.

Most native speakers switch between different styles without even realizing that they are doing it. A classic example concerns the mother who has been shouting at her children when the telephone rings. Immediately and automatically she changes the tone and volume of her voice and her word choice. Indeed, it would be very unusual if we were to speak in the same way all the time, e.g. with our friends when watching a football match and with strangers at a funeral. While the native speaker can immediately and automatically choose the correct style, it is of course much more difficult for the learner of English, particularly if some of the English words he knows have been learned in one context (e.g. from a pop song or TV advert) and are used in another (e.g. in a shop, or at a business meeting.)

Using the language of pop songs in formal situations is one error of style that some learners of English might make, but other learners make the opposite style mistake; i.e. they use language that is too formal for everyday situations. Consider the following situation, for example: You stop someone on a London street and say: Please would you be so kind as to direct me to the nearest post office. I wish to purchase some stamps. This is the kind of language you might expect from someone who has learned from an old-fashioned grammar book; the English is perfect but the style is quite wrong.


Style can be divided into 3 main categories: formal - neutral - informal. So, for example, children is the neutral word, kids is informal and offspring is formal (and slightly humorous). Decide on the style category of the highlighted words in the following sentences, and see if you can suggest an alternative in one of the other styles.


* Notes

Style is not as simple as I have made out in these sentences. Although cool, pick up and loo are listed as informal, they are not informal in the same way. Cool is a slang word used mainly by young people in all parts of the English-speaking world. It sounds faintly ridiculous coming from anyone approaching middle age or older. Pick up is informal, but is used in informal situations by anyone of any age. Loo is also informal but is used almost exclusively in England, and not usually by people of higher social standing!

This brief explanation has shown what a complicated matter this is for non-native speakers!

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