Richard Lanham’s Official Style of Writing

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Richard Lanham, a well-known scholar and teacher of writing, gave a name to the writing style found on many formal documents, such as those used in the fields of government, military, legal, finance and other similar sectors. He calls it “The Official Style,” a way of writing based on “the dominance of nouns and the atrophy of verbs.”

What writing style do you often use? If you’ve ever read lab reports, military documents or financial forecasts, you will likely notice one thing: they are ridiculously difficult to understand. Marked by an adherence to strict grammar (likely with the help of a formal writing software) and colorless prose, not only are they unforgivably boring, they are cumbersome to read. That’s all part of the charm, actually, since they’ve been intentionally wrought out that way.

Especially prevalent in bureaucratic structures, The Official Style is necessary to a certain degree. What situations warrant them?

  • When you intentionally want to obfuscate a message. Read speeches from politicians and you’ll find their noncommital statements buried under The Official Style of writing.
  • When you want to sound impersonal and unbiased.
  • When you want to sound professional. For some reason, people do identify this clap-trap of wordiness as professional, mostly as a conditioned response, since much of our laws and procedures are written in this manner.
  • When you want to sound intelligent. Again, it’s all perception. Because lawyers, bankers and high-ranking officials have traditionally written this way, people assume you carry a dignified title when you write in this manner.

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