Writing in English. The unofficial style

The content of these guidelines is taken from the Vives University Network’s Interuniversity Style Guide for Writing Institutional Texts, an interuniversity project in which the UPC participated with the support of the Secretariat for Universities and Research of the Government of Catalonia.


The unofficial style

  • In his book Revising Prose (Longman, 2006), Richard Lanham coined the term the official style to refer to the obscure, dense prose so characteristic of many textbooks, business reports, academic papers and institutional documents. According to Lanham, this style is characterised by noun-centred sentences cluttered up by long strings of prepositional phrases and typically linked by some form of the verb be, such as in the sentence below.

    *In the light of the constant lack of places on the courses provided by the Language Service, employing another teacher would be a big advantage for the students and lecturers of the university community.

    This sentence could be more economically and clearly expressed in the following way:

    The understaffed Language Service needs to employ another teacher.

  • The official style is often unclear because it consists of too many elements of the same grammatical type. Consider the sentence below. It is long and complex, with 53 words but only one weak verb (is). It is full of prepositional phrases (11) and infinitive clauses (4).

    *The aim of the project is to encourage relations between different universities in Europe in an attempt to foster new approaches to administrative procedures to improve efficiency and cut the costs of the production of academic courses by the organisation of inter-university programmes to be taught at several institutions at any one time.

    Prepositional phrases are important because they provide necessary detail about time, manner and place but, in excess, they obstruct the reader's progress by providing too much information. After the word procedures the sentence provides many diverse details. Likewise, the use of several infinitives of purpose clouds the issue. What is the real purpose of the project? The text could be improved by a shorter introductory sentence focusing on the purpose of the project (see below) and then clarification of how this purpose is to be achieved in subsequent sentences.

    This European project aims to improve the efficiency of administrative procedures and cut the costs of academic courses. It plans to do this by organising inter-university courses that can be taught simultaneously at various universities.

  • If you want your texts to be clear and readily understandable, avoid the official style. Do not write long sentences full of nouns and strings of prepositional phrases linked only by the verb be. Be unofficial: write shorter, more dynamic, verb-centred sentences and do not use long strings of similar grammatical elements.