Formal and Informal English

There are two registers in English — formal and informal. Formal language is more common for official speeches, writing, academic texts. Informal (also known as colloquial) finds its application in speech and writing that take place among friends or people that know each other well.

You are likely to encounter assignments with formal and informal styles in your IELTS Task 1 General, CAE Letter writing and TOEFL writing. Should you choose to enter a college or university, most of your academic papers will have to be in formal style. Your opinion articles however will remain to be informal.

Formal style
  • Differences in vocabulary (Allow instead of let; beverages, not drinks; appropriate, not proper). See formal and informal vocabulary for more!
  • No contracted forms of words (He is, not he’s; We are not we’re; there are not there’re)
  • Use of passive constructions to make the statement sound less categorical. This includes distancing(also known as hedging) and passive voice:
    Distancing/hedging is a way to make the saying more vague, to distance yourself from the opinion you express. It makes you sound like a messenger rather than the author of this opinion
    Examples: Some people think that alcohol should be made illegal
    1.2 Use it to make your expression more tactful and polite.
    Examples: It seems that you have forgotten to greet the guests; You might want to park your car on the other side of the street next time, it is forbidden to leave your vehicles here
    1.3 Hedging comes in handy to communicate information that is unconfirmed. This way the speaker will feel responsible should the information he gives turns out to be false.
    Examples: It is believed that the troops will leave the country in two weeks; They seem to be supportive of our ideas
    For more information on hedging constructions visit this page of website — it has a comprehensive list of hedging/distancing devices
    2. Use of passive voice to move the focus of sentence to action rather than the thing or person.
    Examples: I was forced to go to that party; The food has been bought by my mother; The money had been paid in full
  • Multiple clauses within one sentence. (President Obama thought that this situation should be dealt with assertively and as soon as the conflict is over the country’s foreign policy has to be reconsidered)
    Such unnecessarily long sentences are typical for formal writing. I advice whenever possible to make your sentences more concise, easier to read.
  • Avoiding use of phrasal verbs when possible (To continue, not to go on; To concede, not to give up)
Informal (colloquial) style
  • Use of ellipsis. Ellipsis is leaving out words from sentence without making it more difficult to understand. Below are examples of elliptical sentences with full sentences in brackets
    Examples: Write to you soon (I will write to you soon); Got to go (I have got to go); See you later (I will see you later)
  • Informal punctuation. Exclamation marks(!) and ellipsis (aka triple dot (…) have their use in informal text, but  never in a formal one.
  • You are encouraged to use:
    1. Phrasal verbs. They make your text more cohesive, easier to read.
    2. One- or two-clause sentences. Shorter sentences generally help understanding the gist of your text or speech.
    3. Contracted forms (He’s, we’re).
    4. Slang and set expressions. See formal and informal vocabulary
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