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Writers Talk About Writing

Please Advise Your Verb of Choice

Any word in a living language can develop different meanings in different contexts. These uses of the word can have distinct tones and qualities, with the result that one goes largely unnoticed while its polysemous twin draws regular complaints. For example, my bank recently sent me a form to fill in (fill out, if you prefer), which included the following instruction:

Please advise your Country of Birth

Please ignore, if you will, the puffed-up capitals and consider the very formal verb. For grammatical reasons I'll explain below, the line feels peculiar to me, even absurd — what should I advise my country? Or should I, as my brother suggested, tell my country about a birth?

Neither of these interpretations is intended, of course. The ambiguity I've contrived rests in the meaning of advise. My bank wants me to state, give, name or enter my country of birth in the box provided. But whoever wrote the form must have decided these alternatives were too simple and ordinary, or perhaps didn't even consider them.

Advise has a long history in English. It entered the language from Old French around 1300, with the meaning "observe, examine," and a century or so later gained the familiar sense "give guidance or suggestions to," which we find in Shakespeare ("Good cousin, be advised; stir not tonight"), and in Austen ("I would advise you not to listen").

The use of advise to mean "inform, tell, or notify, often officially" (he advised the company of his decision), which we associate especially with business, may seem a relatively recent innovation. But it too is centuries old, first recorded in the 16th century. Shakespeare again has been there, done that: "Advise me where I may have such a ladder."

Criticism of this usage is also of long standing. Decades ago Ernest Gowers singled it out in Plain Words: "Do not prefer . . . advise when you might use the word say or tell." His contemporary Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it "a piece of commercialese that has invaded the august halls of bureaucracy." Peter Little's book Communication in Business (3rd ed., 1977) says it "makes a letter or report seem stilted and old-fashioned." More recently, Garner's Modern American Usage describes it as "a pomposity to be avoided."

But people do not avoid it, in business or elsewhere. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, notes that while advise for inform or notify was acceptable to a majority of its Usage Panel, many members would prefer it to be "restricted to business correspondence and legal contexts." The note does not appear in the 5th edition — is the usage losing its aura of officialese?

"Please advise your country of birth" is, in any case, problematic. When advise takes a direct object it's normally either the party being advised (I advised her to say no) or the particular form of counsel (we advise caution). Advise meaning state usually takes a clause, often beginning with that (she sent an email advising that all was well), and when it takes a direct object (advise your date of arrival) it sounds stiff but unambiguous. This may be why the bank's instruction reads awkwardly to me.

More to the point, it's extremely and unnecessarily formal. Imagine meeting a bank representative who asks you to "advise your name". It would sound so formal as to seem like parody. Granted, written forms generally use a less casual register than speech, but if businesses want to seem approachable — and what bank doesn't — I'd advise them to write to customers more or less as if they were talking to them, and avoid affected constructions where possible.

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, and we end up with such ripe excesses as "We hereby wish to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence" instead of "Thank you for writing."

To see if it was just me who found "Please advise your country of birth" a bit off, I asked several other people about it, noting the context and withholding my opinion. The responses were all negative: some mildly so (a raised eyebrow), some extremely so (grimaces and derision). The bank just wants me to state my country of birth, but the particular tone of its use of advise lends the instruction a hyper-formal and legal flavour it neither needs nor benefits from.

Please advise your thoughts below.

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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 3rd 2014, 3:58 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
In my view it's an incomplete sentence whether in my interpretation or in the way it's intended. My interpretation is similar to yours, or what believe yours to be, in that they need to finish the thought with whatever it is of which they wish me to inform my country of birth. In the way they intend the instruction it should read something like "Please advise us of the country of your birth."
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great discussion of a fairly commmon phenom. It seems like hypercorrection to me: the writer of the form was probably not someone with an honors degree in English and may have assumed that going with the most prestigious or formal usage would invite the least criticism (rather than the most criticism!).
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Michael C. (Lansing, MI)
This is off-point and may have been discussed earlier but confusion between using advise and advice is one of my pet peeves.
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Ellen C.
On reading your blog post, my first thought was not that the bank was trying to be formal, but that English is not the first language of the person who wrote the instructions for the form.
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Benen (Huntington, WV)
What is the connection of "advise" to "advice"?
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
But what about your use of your spelling of "judgment"? A few years ago I began to notice, almost without exception, it is never spelled "judgement".

[Stan's "judgement" spelling is no doubt more common in his native Ireland, as it is in the UK. Spelling has now been changed to "judgment" to accord with the US style. —Ed.]
Thursday April 3rd 2014, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments.

Victor: "Please advise us of the country of your birth" would sound very formal but otherwise OK to me. It's not clear whether the original line is elliptical or (to be euphemistic about it) innovative.

Orin: Thank you. Hypercorrection and perceived prestige may well be behind it – though without asking the person who wrote it, we can only speculate!

Michael: At least their different pronunciations help distinguish them. find that people have more trouble with practice vs. practise; UK/US differences complicate things further.

Ellen: I would be amazed if the bank asked a non-native English speaker to write an official form for public use.

Benen: One advises advice.

Roger: As the Ed. says, judgement is the usual spelling in my Irish English dialect, which largely follows UK conventions. But I should have remembered to change it.
Friday April 4th 2014, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Here in Canada I've always known the word to be spelled 'judgement' as well.
Friday April 4th 2014, 1:52 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
If I were asked this question by my bank (or by the writer of the form, since the 'bank' itself cannot actually speak), and if I were to respond, assuming my response is my country of birth, would I be providing the bank with appropriate counsel or advice? How would the bank respond to my advice?
Friday April 4th 2014, 6:50 PM
Comment by: Wendy C.
Comment by Wendy C.(Toronto, Canada)
Could this be yet another example of the elimination or mis-use of a preposition - which is so prevalent now? In this case, the expression is to advise one "of" something. To keep it short, the form could have read: State county of birth.

Back to the misuse of prepositions - of late I have heard, in everyday conversation as well as on radio and television, and I have read in newspapers and magazines, many examples of what I would consider to be the wrong preposition being used in common expressions. Unfortunately, it seems to be catching on! Recent examples:
* It was indicative to a certain personal experience. (rather than "of")
* I'm really excited for the upcoming party. (rather than "about")
* They arrived to home much later than expected. (rather than "at")
* She is so love to her boyfriend that she's gone a little crazy. (rather than "with")
* I'm grateful in having a decent place to stay now. (rather than "for" to "to have")

I do understand that language is always evolving, but I'd be interested in the views of others on the subject of prepositions!
Sunday April 6th 2014, 3:52 PM
Comment by: Daniel Salvador A.
I read all yours ideas, I live in Mexico city and I'm Mexican but if "I live in Sn. Antonio, TX and work in the bank and I make the forms and change the modism, that you use, and speak Spanish" what it's the problem people, you are so rightly, rigid with your language?
Sunday April 6th 2014, 5:38 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
We love the precision of meaning and the many different levels and color of language. We're more nerdy than Mexicans!
Monday April 7th 2014, 3:36 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Victor: To complicate things further, judgment is the usual spelling in legal contexts in UK English.

John: I guess you'd have to ask them. It's fine to talk about a bank asking a question, by the way: in such a phrase the word is tacitly understood to refer not to the building but to someone working for the bank.

Wendy: Correct preposition use can be tricky, especially for non-native speakers (as I remember from my own foreign-language-learning experiences). Several of your examples seem like errors of that type; others are loose or evolving usages. It may be worth looking more closely at this topic on another occasion.

Daniel: For my part, I'm anything but rigid about language use in most contexts: see my recent post on language police. However, formal contexts call for standard English -- it's intended to serve communication with a broad group of people -- so I'm fairly sure the bank form was written by someone familiar with the formal dialect.

Roger: Precision, yes; I like ambiguity too, but not in bank forms!
Tuesday April 8th 2014, 1:31 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Re: preposition usage. I suspect some of these examples represent long-standing dialectical differences. (For example, "arrived to home" sounds like something you might encounter in the Midwest or Pennsylvania.)

Anyway, add my vote for an article on preposition usage! :-)

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