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What Is Language In Essay Writing

Some Notes on Language...

Ronald Kephart

University of North Florida

What is language?

As North Americans living in the early 21st century, we have been educated about language from the time we entered school. But much of what we learn about language in schools belongs more to a folk model than to an analytic model of language. Here are several pervasive aspects of our folk model of language.

An analytic model of language

A language is a representational system composed of a set of oral (or, in the case of the hearing impaired, signed) symbols shared by the members of a social group, and a computational system (or grammar) for combining the symbols into phrases and sentences. People use language for internal representation (thinking) and for external representation (communicating). For linguists, the "grammar" of a language is what the native speakers of the language know about their language. Some of the things speakers of a language need to "know" in order to speak a language are:However, the knowledge native speakers have is mostly unconscious knowledge; they "know" how to say it, but they (usually) can’t tell you how or why they say it that way.

Language as both biology & culture

It seems clear that language is a part of the human biological endowment. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this can be found in the area of children's acquisition of language.

All normal human children, everywhere, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts which differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents/caregivers and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children's acquisition of language; in a sense, children acquire language in much the same way as they acquire the skill of walking. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.

By the time they are around 3-4 years of age, children have mastered some of the most complex and subtle rules of their language, rules which no teacher of language could ever teach them. Of course, they still have lots of vocabulary to learn, as well as some of the pragmatic rules of language use in different social situations, and they have to learn to read and write.

While the underlying shape of language is biological, any given language itself is a cultural artifact. The best way to illustrate this is to take the words for the domesticated animal which English speakers refer to as a dog. All languages have a word for this animal; no language has a word for "half-a-dog." This seems to result from a property of the human brain that guides our perception and  representation of natural objects in the world, like dogs, which come to us in whole "packages" (other candidates might be rocks, trees, birds, and so on). At the same time, though, the words we find in different languages

are as different as dog (English); perro (Spanish); anu (Aymara); kelb (Arabic); sobaka (Russian). None of these words has a privileged connection to the animal itself. Each is an arbitrary but conventional answer to the problem of naming these familiar domesticated animals.

The nature of language

Language (not just any language, but all languages) share a number of characteristics or design features that help fill out the concept of just what language is. Here are a few of the most important…

Infinite use of finite media. Although languages are complex, they are not infinitely complex. The number of rules that anyone needs to "know" to create sentences in their language is relatively small, and the number of different kinds of sentences is quite small. Still, the number of sentences that can be produced by any speaker of a language is potentially infinite.

Multiple patterning. Language is patterned at a number of levels of organization: sounds are patterned into phonemes, phonemes into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into larger units of discourse. This is what makes the infinite use mentioned above possible.

Predication. All languages make it possible for their speakers to name something and then make some kind of assertion about whatever was named. In other words, all languages allow for sentences that contain a subject and a predicate. We’ll explore this further in the unit on syntax.

Learnability. A central fact about all known languages is that they are all learnable by human beings. All normal human children acquire the language of their social group, and many (perhaps most!) go on to acquire more than one.

Traditional transmission. While all humans appear to have a built-in, genetically provided capacity for language acquisition, the actual acquisition of language must take place in a social context. The social context determines whether the language acquired is English, Russian, or Inuit, etc.

Displacement. Unlike most animal vocalization systems, which require that a stimulus be physically present for the vocalization to take place, human language allows us to talk about things that are absent in either space or time, or both. Without this feature, humans would not be able to talk about dinosaurs, or Cleopatra. We can add that this feature also allows us to talk about things that never existed, such as Klingons. Without it, we could have neither history or fiction.

Openness. Also unlike other animals, which typically have a fixed set of vocalizations, humans can increase the number of expressions at their disposal by inventing words. This feature allows us to add new words to our vocabulary such as hard drive, internet, and gigabyte.

Language & dialect

In our folk model of language, dialects are usually considered to be incomplete, perhaps ungrammatical, certainly less desirable forms of a standard language. The standard language, in contrast, is seen as more developed, more of a true language. The standard language is the form insisted upon for writing, for use in formal situations, certainly for reading and writing in schools. People who do not know the standard language are sometimes viewed in the same way as deficient, incomplete, lacking in education.

The analytic model of language includes the notion of linguistic relativism, which suggests that there is no point in trying to rank languages on any kind of scale. All human languages that we have any direct information about appear to contain all the characteristics necessary for language. In this view, there is no qualitative difference between a language and a dialect; the reasons why a particular variety of speech gets labeled as a dialect instead of as a language must be sought elsewhere. In particular, the reasons are to be found in the political, social, and economic value placed on the speakers of the language variety in question. The people who wield political, economic, and social control speak the "language"; those who do not speak the "dialect."

I had this lesson driven home to me in 1979, when I was working on a description of Carriacou speech. I took a few days to visit friends in Grenada, and met a Grenadian physician at a dinner party. He was an Afro-Grenadian, but of course upper class. He inquired as to what I was doing, and I explained that I was studying the speech of Carriacou people (who are considered rural and backward by many "mainland" Grenadians). I told him that the end product would be a grammar of their speech, including the rules they follow to produce sentences and so on. A few days later, we met again accidentally at the beach, and he said, "You know, I’ve been thinking about what you told me the other night. I wonder if you realize the political implications of what you are doing. If you show that these rural people speak a real language with grammar rules, then you are showing that they are really human beings and that we have been wrong in treating them the way we have all these years. We’ll have to start treating them as human beings."


The realization that languages and dialects are not qualitatively different, and that attitudes toward them really reflect social prejudices, has led some linguists to say that a language is "a dialect with an army and a navy." For linguists, then, what counts as a "language," as opposed to a "dialect," is socially and culturally negotiated; not determined by some objective linguistic truth. Sometimes the negotiation is spectacularly unsuccessful, as when the Oakland (California) school board attempted to declare African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) a "language." There was a great public outcry against this, but almost nobody understood the real reason: African Americans in the US do not have "an army and a navy"; therefore, they are not entitled to have a "language."

I tend to avoid the difficulty of the word dialect by using variety instead. It seems easier and less judgmental to speak of varieties of English such as British, Australian, North American, or West Indian. We can even talk about varieties of creole English, such as Jamaican, Trinadadian, Barbadian, Belizean, and so on. Or, we can go in the other direction, and discuss varieties of Romance such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; varieties of Indo-European such as Germanic and Balto-Slavic; or even varieties of human language such as Indo-European, Austronesian, and so on. It all depends on what level of abstraction we are interested in.

Although from an analytic viewpoint they "know" a language as well as anyone, speakers of non-standard varieties of language are often assumed by the folk model to be language-deficient. In the Caribbean, this manifests itself especially when creole-speaking children get to school and come up against the standard language in an intense way for the first time. Teachers, who through no fault of their own very often have only minimal training, are aware only of the folk model for language. They assume that deviation from standard language forms is evidence for a lack of language, and that children "have no grammar." The analytic model of language tells us that all normal human children "have grammar" but that grammar is their own knowledge of their native language, not the rules written down in school books.

Last update: May 15, 2005

Copyright © Ronald Kephart, 2005

Writing essays, articles, novels, or any other types of work isn’t easy as it seems, that's why students prefer to choose an essay writing service. Let’s take an essay for example; in order to impress your professor or client you have to make sure it has everything that good essay should include. You have to understand the question, come up with concept, choose the essay topic, and find quotes, statistics or other data to support your arguments. But, that’s not enough. Using appropriate language is equally important.

I like to compare essay to a puzzle; it only counts if all pieces are at their places to form a certain picture. Without appropriate language, carefully crafted concept and other aspects equally represented in the work it doesn’t make a great impact on reader’s mind. In this article, I’m going to list a few tips and tricks that will help you use appropriate language in writing. Let’s start.

Formality level

Most students and essay writers struggle to decide level of formality when writing, particularly when they’re composing essays or other argumentative papers. Ideally, formality level should be determined bearing in mind target audience and purpose of the work itself.

For instance, essays and other argumentative works, cover letters for job applications, or articles for reputable journals require formal style. On the other hand, emailing a friend, writing for websites that target average reader requires different language.

To make this part easier, you can just bear in mind that there are three levels of formality:

  • Formal – written to unknown audience (when sending email etc), essays and other academic works

  • Semi-formal – written to well-known individual or in works that are meant for general audience

  • Informal – humorous content, correspondence with friends and family members, personal conversation etc.


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Jargon is defined as a type of language that is used in a particular context and may not be well understood outside of it. It’s also characteristic for groups of people; individuals outside that group might not understand their jokes or expressions. This also applies to different national backgrounds etc.

Why is jargon important? When writing, you have to include jargon that target audience will understand. For instance, when writing for medical journal you have to implement medical expressions in your work. When, essay writing  for school or client you have to demonstrate vast knowledge of English language by feeling free to introduce jargon regarding certain topic or niche but also making sure you’re not overdoing it.

Slang and idiomatic expressions

Ideally, you should avoid using slang (y’all, cool) and using idiomatic expressions (spill the beans) in academic writing. Although idioms seem quite harmless to us, they can degrade the quality of your essay. If you’re not native English speaker then idioms are something you should be careful about. They are specific to certain people, their language, and even their country and you might not understand their true meaning. Misplaced idiom is a huge no-no.

Writing your essay

As I’ve already mentioned, using appropriate language is highly important for your work, regardless of the type. However, most people usually struggle finding right language for their essays. After all, writing articles or novels is somewhat easier. You already know the target audience and it makes it easier for you to choose right language. When writing essay, your job is to demonstrate knowing of the subject, develop your argument, and use formal language that is still not perceived as “arrogant” by your professor or client. Let’s see how you can accomplish that.

Read more Essay help articles:

Create a confident and objective voice

Ideally, you should use the third person most of the time. Why? It’s because using “I” in academic work depicts your personal arguments and subjectivity which isn’t practical as this type of paper should be objective.

Example: This essay discusses the importance of…

Pay attention to tense! Tenses are tricky and they pose as hidden obstacles that most people don’t avoid. Think about the purpose of the paper, it’s topic, and argument you should develop and determine the tense, past or present and make sure you don’t end up writing one sentence in past tense, next in present tense and so on.

Example: The new study published in the British Medical Journal claims that….

The Industrial Revolution had major impact upon society in multiple ways…

Avoid complications

Just because you’re writing an academic work, it doesn’t mean you should make it complicated. It’s possible to write in formal language without making reader think “what does all this mean”.

First, always avoid contractions.

Example: instead of “don’t”, “can’t”, “shouldn’t”, “wouldn’t” you should use “do not”, “cannot”, “should not”, “would not”.

Second, use full forms of words without abbreviating them.

Example: instead of “memo”, “TV”, “quote” you should use “memorandum”, “television”, “quotation” etc.

Third, use “smarter” versions of “ordinary” words.

Example: instead of “buy”, “get” you should use “purchase”, “obtain”.

You should also:

  • Avoid using too many “big words”. Keep a balance between scientific and academic expressions and ordinary language i.e. don’t use more than two academic expressions and big words per sentence. Otherwise it will look like you grabbed a thesaurus and found synonyms for every word you came up with
  • Make sure that every word you write should contribute to the overall meaning of the sentence, paragraph, essay i.e. don’t fluff

  • Use strong and specific verbs

  • Use appropriate transitions from one sentence or paragraph onto the other

  • Avoid using vague words or phrases, use specific and precise expressions

  • One more time, using cliché phrases and idioms isn’t appreciated

  • Avoid using taboo language, sexist expressions, assumptions, stereotypes, and generalization.

To get the best possible reaction from reader(s) of your essay, you have to adjust the language to the type of essay you’re writing. While using appropriate language is largely overlooked the truth is – it can make or break your paper. Ideally, your work should be formal and level of formality adjusted to target audience. Before you start writing, think about purpose of the paper, type of work and other parameters that tell you what type of language you should use.