Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.


20 Responses to Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

  1. Anne says:

    “(I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)”

    The best thing I’ve read all day.

  2. Roger says:

    Surely audience, context, purpose (etc.) guide if not determine which level of formality or informality the writer should aim for.
    And isn`t level of formality a point that the Biz Comm textbooks have hammered on for decades past.
    Those Biz Comm textbooks, however, are one of the very few ways in which plain language gets any representation at all in schools, and even their content on PL is minimal. Chrissie Maher`s PL campaign is over 30 years old, but the movement`s bibliographies had no teaching texts for schools that I ever knew of.
    The Canadian civil service published Plain Language, Clear and Simple, a nice little 50-page booklet intended as a guide for themselves and for anyone else interested. It came with a much larger training manual for instructors. That project too is old, from the late 1980s, out of print, and looks like their last word on the subject.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    A delicate word to me. Advise that is. As if optional somehow. “Provide” however leaves no choice. A terse instruction.


  4. dw says:

    I’ve always detested the semi-pompous British use of “advise” to mean “say” or “tell”.

    Fortunately for me, it seems to be much less common in the US.

  5. Irene Taylor says:

    Silly me…I always thought ‘advise’ (verb) was related to ‘advice’ (noun) and so – most properly – meant ‘to give advice’. That’ll teach me to use my dictionary in future! My own grammatical/spelling bugbear is the misuse of the noun (usually ‘-ice’) for the verb (usually ‘-ise’), probably because when you learn English as a second language you are very conscious of spelling as an aid to meaning.

  6. John Cowan says:

    I think of this monotransitive use of advise without a second object, such as us or the bank, as typical of Indian English.

  7. dainichi says:

    @John Cowan,

    “Please advise us your Country of Birth” doesn’t quite work for me either. I think the direct object needs to be “to …” or “that …”, but of course, the meaning would be different.

  8. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comments. There’s no shortage of good advice and resources on plain language for official and business communication, but the same tendency towards hyperformality persists, and likely always will. The message seldom gets through, or if it does it seldom lasts. There’s a pervasive perception in these circles that the language they use should sound impressive, and regrettably legalese and bureaucratic jargon sound more impressive to them than plain English.

    Roger: Training and education would be a partial solution. In the UK the group most associated with plain language is the Plain English Campaign, a commercial entity with limited reach and effect.

    Irene: Advise often does mean that, but it has other uses too. Confusion over -ice/-ise forms is very common, less so with advise/advice because of their different pronunciations (compared to e.g. practice/practise).

  9. Anne says:

    I just thought of this post again when attempting to read a letter from my town. It either says we’ve been overcharged in taxes, and that was an error; or that we were charged a lot in taxes, and the error was in not telling us ahead of time; or possibly the error was that the increase was supposed to be spread out over several years. I’ve read the five-paragraph thing multiple times and find myself squinting and frowning and reading sections aloud in an attempt to understand. I’d be willing to pay a little extra not to have to read this thing. Oh maybe that’s their strategy.

    • Stan says:

      This is the trouble, Anne. Unless plain language is aspired to, it’s all too easy for official or corporate text to end up effectively incomprehensible. I’m also reminded of Airbnb, whose recently revised Terms of Agreement apparently contain over 55,000 words of legalese. I wonder if anyone has ever read them.

  10. ‘Decades ago Ernest Gowers singled it out in Plain Words: “Do not prefer . . . advise when you might use the word say or tell.”‘

    FWIW, that’s from Bruce Fraser’s 1973 revision of Gowers (I compared it with an earlier edition, and it was Fraser who added *advise* to the list).

    “Please advise your Country of Birth” looks like someone stretching for a more formal register and getting it wrong: grammatically and tonally.

    Tangent: When I was young, the ATM I often used offered a choice between “Withdrawal with advice” and “Withdrawal without advice.”
    Advice turned out, boringly, to be notification of one’s bank balance. Not proper advice such as “Dump him.”

    • Stan says:

      Miche: You’re right, it was Fraser’s addition. I never thought to check that at the time of writing, but I did just there. (Not that I didn’t believe you, but I was interested to see exactly what form the revision took. I imagine Gowers would have concurred.)

      It definitely feels like a tonal misstep to me, even allowing for the semi-formal context of bank–customer correspondence. Your ATM story suggests an opening for fortune-cookie-style nuggets to be appended to bank slips – just as long as they steer clear of financial advice.

  11. TLS says:

    I fear that we shall read far more inappropriate english, let alone tonal missteps, in the future. Sadly, those responsible for writing these tend to be underpaid administration staff. My medical secretary, with 30 years experience and years of training junior secretaries had the most exemplary control of and expression in written and spoken plain english, Her replacement, a 17y on the same salary, has no interest in correcting her missives as she says she has not been taught to do so at school. Or anywhere she reads english for that matter. My hospital management, purveyors of astounding and often hilarious english bloomers, are perplexed and irritated when I draw attention to their gaffes. I suspect the rot has set in at Board level. What can be done I wonder?

    • Stan says:

      TLS: That’s a disheartening scenario. The same bad habits are easily picked up by each new generation unless those writers are trained out of it, or somehow made aware of the serious problems with gobbledygook and how to bypass them with plain language.

  12. TLS says:

    I presume the educationalists are mainly concerned with the burgeoning of literacy rather than the teaching of plain language; even that term implies dullness for the young. Of course most of your correspondents see plain language as the staff of literary life when fasting from the higher richer delights of expressive and , descriptive prose. Dullness does not enchant our youth, who rather are attracted to the new, the Zeitgesit, even the publication of neologisms as the ultimate written selfie. Why pay attention to making a perfect loaf of bread when you can get tasty additive flavoured oral satisfaction from the fast food chain?

  13. Bloix says:

    There doesn’t seem to be a plain word here. “Please say/tell your country of birth” No. “Please write your country of birth.” Odd. “Please provide your country of birth”? Just as Latinate as advise – and literally, shouldn’t that be “please provide the name of your country of birth”? Maybe just “country of birth” is the best alternative.

    • Stan says:

      Bloix: Just “Country of birth” would have been fine too, yes. But if they want to make a full sentence out of the instruction, then name or state would have been plain and unobjectionable.

  14. […] unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication. […]

  15. puigpantxin says:

    Businessspeak can be very irritating, especially when it’s taken up with gusto by burgeoning business people. I’m thinking of, “We’re delighted….”, when delight as such is probably furthest from the mind, or, “We extend our (warmest thanks/sympathy, etc.” when I get an image of one of those joke hands on a stick being physically extended.

    • Stan says:

      puigpantxin: Businesses’ false warmth annoys me too, whether it’s “reaching out” to people or saying they’re “passionate” about things they do by rote for profit alone.

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