Voicing my doubts: When formal and informal clash

Nishali Naik/Senior Staff

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I’m never sure whether other people talk to themselves (other than the inarguably crazy among us) or whether I am alone in having lengthy, discursive interactions aloud with myself. For my own peace of mind, I mostly decide to believe I am not the only one and to go about my daily life without giving it a second thought. But some days, I spend more time wondering: “How do others speak to themselves? And is that our true ‘voice’ — how we speak to ourselves?” And I’d hazard a guess that it is: Our audible solo conversations showcase our instinctive “voice” — not the one we’ve been trained to have, not the one we learned in order to sound erudite-but-approachable-and-definitely-super-unique-and-memorable for cover letters and college applications, but the ones that structure and articulate our most natural selves.

But let me start at the beginning. The first time I ever encountered the idea of “voice” in a rigorous (and not passing) sense was in my junior year of high school, when my English teacher told me that I needed to achieve more voice in my writing, that I sounded stilted and could be more memorable if I worked harder. Moderately affronted but justifiably chastened, I began to wonder why the voice I wrote with naturally did not constitute voice in writing.

I mostly abandoned this quandary until the beginning of my senior year, when my English class was starting a unit on personal essay writing. When my English teacher recommended that we approach our personal essays with our natural, informal voice, I was perplexed. I found myself forced to ask (with no small measure of chagrin), “What if our natural voice isn’t informal?” My classmates — and my teacher — found this query appropriately comical, if apropos: After all, my natural voice is (as I imagine you’ve surmised) not what most people consider informal.

Though my detractors — and, indeed, likely also my friends — would like to think that my speech is painfully contrived, cultivated fastidiously in an effort to appear sophisticated and better-than, that is hardly so. Tragically, this is in fact how I am. To me, the voice that sounds contrived is the slang-laden tripe I use to sound “informal” when writing to those I don’t know or when meeting people for the first time. Informality, though widely taken for granted, is an invaluable tool; the simple fact that most people find it more authentic and automatic does not mean that it is how we all naturally operate. And if an unusually formal voice does not sound like it ever poses a challenge, imagine this distance created when other people conjecture that you are always mentally correcting their speech or that you think you are far smarter than they. A formal voice fits neatly in print; in conversation, it can be profoundly isolating.

Copy editing, then, is an obvious deliverance for me. Though one must be careful not to be overzealous, reconfiguring every offending phrasing in an article and thereby depriving writers of their own voice, news copy is an excellent place to unleash my inner pedant and enforce every grammatical convention and formality under the sun. (Daily Cal writers are admittedly very good even under time pressures, so this impulse to hypercorrect their work hardly has room to run amok.) Copy editing lets me be myself — my naturally critical, incurably formal self. Articles like this one, whether past English teachers would sanction them or not, contain my real voice; they sound, in my opinion, exactly as they would if I chatted aloud with myself.

(No, I am not an English major.)

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected].