Doing Our Level Bests

The cashier is young enough that she has to call for help to legally sell beer; the manager comes and rings it up for her, hands the six-pack to the departing customer.  Then the tiny cashier, with her blast of curly blonde hair and long, long fingernails (I marvel at her ability to firmly grasp the groceries marching down the belt), twinkles at the next person in line.

That person is also tiny, but much older, a lady with a long, beautifully tailored coat, a halo of white hair, and hands that shake a little as they wield her hefty wallet. She looks fragile. She looks…venerable.  I imagine her as a former teacher or librarian who once quelled unruly charges with one calm look.

The cashier pulls the lady’s first purchase over the scanner, dimples, and chirps, “Hi, Honey!”

The dignified customer straightens up; she’s a little nonplussed, I can tell, by the ‘Honey.’

But the cashier, oblivious, plows on.  “How’dja like this weather?” she asks, cheerfully.  “It was a BITCH getting here this morning.”

The dignified little lady goes completely rigid.  She stares at the cashier for a moment, and then she swivels her head and happens, in the moment, to meet my eye.  Her look speaks clearly.  It says: Did this young person just say the word BITCH to me???

I do the universal eyebrow-raise-and-head-shake that says, ‘Oh-well: these days…’ .  The lady puts her last item on the belt, waits in silence, and pays with a distant, murmured thank you.  She declines carry out service (“Do you want someone to carry that for you, Honey?”) and leaves with a shake of her well-coiffed white head.

The cashier, turned a little red by now, starts scanning my items.  “Sheesh,” she mutters. “STUFFY.”

My husband would be proud of me.  Instead of launching into full English teacher Here’s-where-you-went-wrong mode, I clamp my lips shut and smile.  I pay for my order, and I depart without sharing the lecture on levels of language that is pounding on the roof of my mouth, demanding to be let out.


The cashier had a problem many students I’ve met have: not knowing when to switch register.  There are registers or levels of language (I lump them into four groups for my purposes), and knowing how to navigate them, when to switch from one to another, is an essential part of communication–spoken OR written.

Realtors might say, Location, location, location.  As writers, we should always say, Audience, audience, audience. Our audience determines (or should determine, anyway) which level of language we use.

That perky little cashier didn’t know that she needed to switch from a completely unfiltered mode to something a little more restrained when dealing with her dignified older customer.  That lack cost her in the long run,–cost her the friendly response she was seeking and cost her (and possibly her store) points in the estimation of her customer.  In the same way, we writers can lose or engage our audiences depending on the level of address we choose.

So, here are my interpretations of the four levels, gleaned and morphed from reading and practice over so many years I cannot even remember to whom I should attribute them.  I did not create these.  I build, as usual, on the thoughtful work of others.

1. Nonstandard.  This is the anything goes, locker room-friendly kind of language that is appropriate only at very certain times and in particular kinds of writing.  It might be revealing to use in writing a conversation, for instance, giving us a real idea of what the speaker is like.

In non-standard language, there are no rules: grammar and punctuation be…ummm, darned.  But if I were using this level, I could say something stronger. In non-standard English, even CUSSING or–Heaven forfend!–vulgarities are okay.  (I have some thoughts on when and whether those kinds of things should be used, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
This kind of written language is fine for journals and letters to people we know so very well–maybe even in emails to intimates. Used indiscriminately, or in the wrong company, it can be offensive. I read a lot of it on FaceBook. Since the audience there is usually mixed,–intimate friends mingle with professional colleagues, former teachers and the nice lady who used to live next door read the same posts, etc.– non-standard English always conjures up my frowning teacher-puss. I think FaceBook posts ought to move up one notch, anyway, going into the level of…

2. Informal.  I believe this is where my writing lives a good part of the time. In the informal stage, we’re clear and direct and we address our audience as ‘you,’ and we regularly invoke the first person.  We use slang and contractions, and we throw in quirky local terms.  There’s humor in this level, although we adhere nicely to rules of grammar.  Our punctuation is correct.  But we’re relaxed, and the written flow is easy to read.

This is, I think, the level of most blog posts; it’s the kind of writing that cuts through any imposed barriers and makes a clear, direct connection to a reader.  The voice we develop in this mode, maybe–depending on the level of formality in our own personalities–is closest to our authentic personal voice, and to our spoken voice.
This, I think, is the most common mode for the kind of fiction that makes us think the narrator is someone with whom we’d like to have coffee. This is the relaxed language we use with a close friend for whom we have love and respect. Then we move up a level, to…

3. Standard English.  Standard English follows all the rules, and a writer could still use first and second person.  But there’s no slang here, no contractions, certainly no smiley face emoticons.  This is the kind of writing instructors push us to use in our academic papers.  It is bound, Standard English is, by rules of grammar and punctuation, but I really think there’s ample room for our authentic voices to emerge here.
This is the language we use in letters to former teachers, in reports to vice presidents, in pitches, maybe, to a publisher. It is cover letter language. Correct, yes, but there is plenty of room to be lively, as well.  This is maybe NOT so true in the last and loftiest level, which is…

4. Formal English. When one is writing in formal English, one does not refer to one’s self as ‘I’.  Third person rules here; this is the language of academic journal articles and doctoral dissertations and possibly, legal briefs (although I happen to think legal writing mostly exists in another realm entirely).  All rules must be strictly adhered to in this register;  the reader shall not crack a smile nor snick so much as even a tiny snicker should dread humor endeavor to insert itself.  Here, one will read esoteric terms and high-faluting jargon, multi-syllabic words that only the very knowiest of know-it-alls would have any reason to know.
This level is not, perhaps, my favorite. But it DOES have its proper audience.


I ping and I pong, I think, in my writing, between informal and Standard English; my comfort zone is in kind of a Venn diagram intersect between the two.  What’s your most common level; have you ever thought about this?  When you write in that level, in that voice, to whom are you writing? Who is that reader you can kind of half-see, reading your words and nodding, because they get it, they really do get it????

It’s possible, if we’re not getting that reaction from folks who read our work, that we’re like the cashier–not reading our audience, not navigating our levels.  It can be a lot of fun to cultivate voices in all four, and to see who seems to ‘hear’ us when we write within each level.


Happy blogging, my friends!

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#creative writing