Bringing Formal Back

One writing trend I’ve noticed in my class over the last few years is a decreased ability to use formal language in speech and written work. I’m really not sure why this pattern is emerging but I have a hunch that it is due to increased use of informal mediums of communication-like text messaging or tweeting.

Formal Style is Out of Style

I’ve also thought that the communication style of influential leaders like U.S. president Donald Trump has contributed to this gap. In his Washington Post article detailing Trump’s use of language, Bastien Inzaurralde says that the 45th president rarely uses prepared speeches to address large audiences and has become famous for informal communication style. For example, the president frequently answers questions with only two words. Two common short replies are, “Not good” and “Great people.” This kind of informal register is surprising given the president’s position and the formal, public context of most of his remarks. It also has an impact on the millions of listeners and watchers that are tuned in daily.

Is Learning Formal Style Not Important?

While formal written and spoken registers may be in decline, it remains a really important practical skill that everyone uses at some point in their life. Resumes, letters (or emails) to civic, political or workplace leaders, all require a formal style of writing. Further, the academic and specialized vocabulary that is needed to write or speak in a formal setting is really helpful for any student who will be required to do more academic writing in the future.

Lavalin Letters to the Prime Minister

Through out the last few months, our class has been paying close attention to the SNC Lavalin affair as it has unfolded in our nation’s capital. One of the many reasons that my students find this issue engaging is because one the main players, former Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould is a local Member of Parliment in the Vancouver-Granville riding.

In an effort to help my students develop some formal writing skills, develop their own voice and participate in the democratic process, I asked them to write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter giving him their advice regarding this situation. I also challenged them to consider sending the letter to the Prime Minister to make the task more authentic. Below, is an example of one of a letter written by one student.

Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Our class have been learning about the SNC-Lavalin affair and I am writing to you regarding this case. We learned about SNC-Lavalin’s “checkered” history. We also discussed how you are worried about jobs being lost and we know how hard you are working to keep SNC-Lavalin a running company so Canadian’s won’t lose their jobs.  But I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould was doing her job right which is keeping Canada fair.

 I admire how you stood up for Canadian’s jobs and I think you took a big risk and I respect that. But I think it was unnecessary how you moved Ms. Wilson-Raybould down from her position as a Justice Minister and Attorney General. Mr. Prime Minister, according to the “What in the World? – The SNC-Lavalin Affair” article issue 7, when you took office in 2015, you appointed Ms. Wilson Ray-Raybould yourself.  Wilson-Raybould clearly stated that the SNC-Lavalin company was going to court and Attorney Generals are supposed to make decisions independent of politics. She was following what you have assigned her to do.

 I value your leadership but in my opinion, I think Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did nothing wrong to be stepped down. I think her decisions and her strong opinion makes her a fair Justice Minister. I would want to see her back in her office and let her continue to do what she thinks is best for our country as a Justice Minister.

Sincerely and most respectfully,

7M Student

Another student was able to avoid using the first person pronouns and includes a few more formal vocabulary words. A sample of his letter is below.

Dear Mr. Trudeau,

On April 27, 2019, Jody Wilson-Raybould was expelled from the position of Justice Minister. She claimed that the government had pressured and harassed her with messages, emails, and calls in an attempt to get her to intervene in SNC Lavalin’s criminal case. She did not give in to the pressure, which is a just response, but you silenced her by transferring her to Veteran Affairs. SNC Lavalin did some illegal things, like bribing other countries with millions of dollars, then, instead of admitting to the crime, they tried to cover it up. Then you tried to help them avoid the crime.

If you had just admitted what they did wrong and what you did wrong, the punishments would have been dealt, and then everyone would be forgiven. Work with what you have now by apologizing to the people you hurt, like Andrew Wernick, Jane Philpotts or Jody Wilson-Raybould.

You fired Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she came forth with the messages and a call with Michael Wernick coercing her to comply. I do understand that you were looking out for all the people working at SNC Lavalin, but you tried to cover what you did, and then removed a very important person. That is very wrong. At a time like this, I suggest you apologize.


7M Student

I have really enjoyed reading these Prime Minister letters and would recommend it to other teachers as writing idea. The only missing part in this project, at this point, is a reply. I hope the students who did send their letter to the Prime Minister’s office will receive a reply from the in time to share it with the class before we break for summer.

If you have ideas or suggestions for teaching formal writing style to your students, I would be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.

Header photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

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