Levels of Usage

Levels of usage refers to the kind of situation in which a word is normally used. Most words suit all occasions. Some, however, are restricted to formal, literary contexts, and others to informal, colloquial ones. Consider three verbs which roughly mean the same thing: exacerbate, annoy, bug. Talking among your friends, you would not be likely to say, "That person really exacerbated me." On the other hand, describing a historical episode you wouldn't (or shouldn't) write, "The Spartan demands bugged the Athenians." But you could use annoy on both occasions, without arousing derision in either friends or readers of your work.

The three words differ considerably in their levels of usage. Exacerbate is a literary word, appropriate to formal occasions. Bug (in this sense) is a colloquial, even slang, term appropriate to speech and very informal writing. Annoy is an all-purpose word, suitable for any occasion. When in the next chapter we discuss the practical problem of appropriateness, we shall use the labels formal, informal, and general to distinguish these broad levels of usage.

From the more theoretical viewpoint we are taking here, we may think of level of usage as a peripheral part of a word's connotation. As with connotation in general, it is not easy to look up the level of usage of any particular word. Dictionaries label an occasional term "colloquial" or "slang," but not in every case; and they do not label formal words like exacerbate at all. You have to depend on your own knowledge as a guide.

In recent years the line between formal and informal usage has blurred considerably (though not enough for Spartans to bug Athenians). The distinction still exists, however, and careful writers pay attention to it.

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Project Management Made Easy

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