So . . . now that you understand how English has simplified its grammar to the point that we use the same form of address for everyone (except maybe judges, who are still called “your honor” or “the court”), you might ask yourself, “What is the price we pay to have such a simplified system?”
The answer is that style and word choice become much more important in English than in other languages that rely on grammar to handle the problem, at least to a degree.
Americans have several styles, which correspond to levels of speech: “high-level” is for formal or polite communication, as with the elderly, those in authority, or any others to whom the most respectful form of address is appropriate. “Informal style” or “friendly style” would be appropriate for contemporaries and acquaintances, even in emails or notes. “Casual style” would be appropriate for family and intimate friends; however, even in such cases, some parents insist that their children use a higher style of speech at meals and other family gatherings. These levels seem to track somewhat the three levels of “you” found in most Western languages other than English.
The point is so obvious that it’s hard to make: When speaking/listening to a “high-level” audience, you should use “high level” vocabulary and syntax. At a minimum, you should express yourself in the best version of Standard American English that you can muster.
Examples of “high level” speech (and writing) include:
- Contact with a stranger who is in authority (as in a job application letter or interview);
- Friendly dialogue with a professor or clergyman;
- Polite conversation with an elderly person, especially one not a close relative; and
- Formal news reporting on television.
Of course, your highest level of speaking and writing style will also be called for in many other contexts as well.
“Low level” speech (seldom written, except maybe in texting) also occurs in a few contexts, including (for example):
- Dialogue between good friends or family, in person, on the phone or via the internet;
- Gatherings around sports events; and
- Quick interchanges with service providers whom you know, as in a convenience store or beauty salon.
“Low level” does not mean gruff, crude or rude; no, it simply means simple and casual.
Of course, a wide spectrum of intermediate levels can be identified as well, to say nothing of the possible levels of “lower than low” that puncture the floor of coarse-to-vulgar.
In selecting a level style, the speaker/writer can not help but disclose the degree of respect (or lack of it) he or she has for the person being addressed. This is a large and important part of “good manners.” Style conveys your attitude about others; but make no mistake: the style you choose also discloses a great deal of information about you.
In these times, when we do not have grammatical and syntactical rules that correspond to the chosen speech level, we must fall back on three essential characteristics:
- Precision (and richness) of word choice;
- Correctness of syntax;
- Presence or absence of slang words, clichés and faddish constructions.