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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.