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Difference between formal and informal English

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Difference between formal and informal English

Unread postby Weibing » Mon May 21, 2007 11:56 pm

Hi,everyone,

Could you tell me what's the difference between formal and imformal English?!

A letter to a friend may be informal. A website forum like this one may also imformal. But we usually see such greetings as 'Dear Weibing'. It seems 'Hi, Weibing' is quite natural here.

Contractions sounds informal. 'I'm', 'we're', 'there's' etc are all natural to me. I wonder if such contractions could be seen in an English textbook,an English dictionary or a president's speech - all these should be considered formal. I once used 'it'll'(instead if 'it will') in a letter to my friend Steve, but he pointed out that I should avoid using 'it'll'. Then when should I use 'I am', 'we are' instead of 'I'm' and 'we are'?

Maybe the difference between formal and informal English is not that clear. we may have 'very informal', 'quite formal' etc?!

I'd appreciate any reply from you all. Thanks again - maybe more formal: thank you again!

Best wishes,(Maybe here just 'yours', 'love' or nothing at all here.)

Weibing
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Unread postby Weibing » Fri May 25, 2007 11:15 pm

Still no answer so far!! I wonder if this forum is not supposed to answer any question except ESL teaching. Maybe the difference between formal and informal English is not really that clear. Or maybe my question is out of the question!!!
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Unread postby Kevin Vosper » Sun May 27, 2007 1:41 pm

Dear Weibing, sorry Hi Weibing

I think your question is a very good one but one of the reasons you haven't had an answer might be simply a question of time or perhaps some readers are worried about their standard of English. To anyone reading this, please post replies and don't worry about your English level. It's your ideas which matter on this site not your English.

Refering to your original question I think you've raised a very important point. As teachers we often divide language into two boxes and label one "formal" and the other one "informal." This is of course not really true, instead, like many things in life, there is a slow drift with formal language at one end and informal language at the other but with a large grey area in the middle. To add to the problem language is constantly changing especially in an age of mass communication. We often think of writing as more formal than speaking and in general this is true. However, there are of course exceptions to this such as giving a speach at a wedding or writing a dialogue for a play. Often we try to make writing more like the spoken word and for this reason use contractions replacing "I will" with "I'll." Or we do the opposite e.g:

"I don't like Peter."

"You do like Peter."

Perhaps spoken by a mother to her child. In both of these examples we are trying to imitate the stress of natural spoken language to create an effect on the reader. Equally we often want to avoid sounding to informal, especially in serious situations. Noone would expect a lawyer in a court to begin his questions with the following:

"Hi judge, how yer doing, I fancy asking this bloke here a few questions. Don't mind do yer?"

Clearly not appropriate language for a legal case and it is this question of "what is appropriate" which is the difficulty. Here in Poland men always shake hands when meeting a friend, even if they've been friends for years. In other cultures shaking hands is only appropriate in formal situations or meeting someone for the first time. In both cases communication is happening (be it non-verbal) but what is appropriate is different.

The only approach I can think of to your question is to take Noam Chomsky's division of language into E-language and I-language. E-language is external language i.e. the effect that society and culture has on language and I-language is the individual or internal language that a person has. Under E-language can be put such influences as education, a persons social position in a given society, the region he or she comes from, conventional forms e.g. you would write a report differently from a letter, even if both use formal language. In short what is expected from communication in a given society. Under I-language would be an individuals writing, or indeed speaking style. For example, I know I use far too many non-defining relative clauses in my writing
but this is a feature of my own writing style. Also age is a factor. People tend to use language in a way that they are comfortable with even if the general language has changed.

Finally, something which has influenced both of the above is technology. When I was at school you always finished a letter by putting your name on the right.
Now it is normal to put it on the left. Why? Because it is easier to press the return key once than use the space bar to put the curser onto the right. Texting is also influencing language and globalisation e.g. the growth of regional types of English.

Generally, I believe, English is becoming more informal, I got a letter from my bank last year which began "Hi Kevin" I thought about writing back and asking if they wanted English lessons. It is easy to be frightened of change, especially in language which is often linked to national identity but communication will always exist even if it's not the form you were taught at school.

The above is just some general thoughts on a very big issue and I would welcome any comments, or indeed critisism of them.

Best wishes

Kevin Vosper
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Unread postby Weibing » Sun May 27, 2007 4:43 pm

Dear Kevin,

Thank you very very much - I was so happy to see your reply and really appreciate it! I've been looking forward to seeing any feedback and finally saw yours - you could imagine how excited I was when I found out there's a new reply to my post!

Maybe it's the case - no definite answer is the answer to my quesiton! Or rather, there's no need to emphasize the difference between formal and informal English! I agree there may be a 'grey area'. Sometimes, it's really hard to say which is formal English and which is not, e.g. many see 'dash'(-) in an article as somewhat informal - but 'dash' here is quite natural to me!

Writing could be rather informal. It's especially true, when you try to write something in a spoken English way. How about English newspapers - it's formal or informal? The title of a newspaper may be very informal yet acceptable and understandable! Concision is also required when you write something, isn't it? So, 'I'm', 'you're'etc may all be acceptable in writing. But 'yer','ya','U' etc might be too informal and less elegant for me! ('Hi' may be halfway between formal and informal Englsih.) Anyway, writing might need to be as 'formal' as possible while being 'concise'.

So, 'appropriate','acceptable','nice'etc should be used rather than 'formal'. Nevertheless, 'correct' is still different from(to) 'incorrect', even though we may have differences between AmE and BrE or other Englishs. A sentence like this: 'I does homework.' is incorrect, no matter what standard you use to analyse it.

Now, I realize my question is really tricky and deserves the answers from native speakers like you! I hope to see more replies from any of you!

Best wishes,

Weibing
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Unread postby Weibing » Fri Jun 01, 2007 12:32 pm

To whoever might be reading this post:

It's getting more hard to keep a thread going! Seems only a few readers are willing to put someting to a post. Yes, writing something may not be so easy and enjoyable. It takes time, and sometimes pains! some think it's not worth it, or rather, no point or no need to say something! How do you think?!

To my own question, I can share a little more with you:

1. Try not to be too formal or too informal. Even for a business letter, 'too formal' isn't a good idea. On the other hand, even in a chat room, 'too informal' may also be unacceptable.

2. 'Simple' or 'concise' is best. When you try to write something, keep that in mind and avoid being 'too long' or 'too complicated'.

Sorry, I'm afraid I'll finish here! (Someone is calling me.)

Do try to give a reply to this post!!!
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Unread postby Weibing » Fri Jun 22, 2007 11:41 am

Thanks, riverc,

I totally agree with you. But I would say it's really a tricky problem.

Sometimes you need to be as formal as possible, but sometimes it's not the case. When others say that you sound a little 'formal', it may probably mean that you sound a bit 'inappropriate'?! It's really hard for a non-native speaker to be always 'appropriate' - not too formal or too informal.

Sometimes you can tell that a car in front of you is driven by a rookie - at least the driver is not a good driver. An English learner may sound like a rookie driver - 'inappropriate'!
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Unread postby Lynn » Sat Jun 23, 2007 3:33 pm

Weibing, your question is a very good one. Unfortunately, it covers a lot of territory. Kudos to Kevin Vosper for his scholarly answers. Lame as it may sound, I have to agree with him. Now for my two cents worth.

Remember, English is a living language, so what is the accepted "norm" today will not be tomorrow or the next day. As Kevin pointed out, technology, especially the internet, is changing expectations for both formal and informal writing very quickly. I read recently, (don't remember where) that some university is actually accepting the ICQ form of abbreviations in essays now. That I find very hard to believe, and a lot harder to accept. I've had students turn in papers written this way. No one does it more than once, though! :twisted:

Speaking is another can of worms entirely. When you are writing, you know the audience you want to attract, and you craft your writing to suit those expectations. Effective speaking, however, has many more variables, and the speaker is quite often not in control of most of them. Yet, there are some constants. Let's say that you, Weibing, are to address your colleagues in a symposium. You are to read a paper that you have researched concerning a particular aspect of your chosen field. You will choose your words with care as you prepare your presentation, and suit your choices to your perceived expectation of your audience. However, immediately after the symposium, you are accosted by mic-waving members of the press who demand that you tell the public at large "in a nutshell" what all the hoopla is about. You will hardly use the same speech in this context, although you are saying basically the same thing.

So, context dictates to a very large extent the formality of our speech. The problem is, that context is constantly changing. This is not something that can easily be taught in a classroom. Sometimes, life experience is about the only way to really learn something. That does not let teachers off trying to explain things as clearly as possible. Good luck to us all.
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Unread postby Lynn » Sat Jun 23, 2007 3:39 pm

BTW, Weibing, please be patient when expecting answers to your posts. Many schools are out for the summer, which means many teachers are traveling and avoiding the computer as much as possible. Still other schools are in the midst of final exams, and teachers are overworked, stressed out, and ready to do anything at all except look at another computer monitor when they do have a bit of breathing room. So, please, don't despair.
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Unread postby Weibing » Sun Jun 24, 2007 10:34 am

Thanks, Lynn,

Perfect answers - I really appreciate it! I also noticed that you have tried to reply several other posts in this forum. I'd say I've learned much from all your answers. I wonder if I could be so patient in teaching others Chinese just as you are in teaching English?!

As for my question, I totally agree with you and Kevin. The standard of English formality has been changing over time. What is acceptable or proper at one time might not be OK at another time - it also depends on the situation or environment or 'context' when you're seaking or writing.

Does it really matter to master the difference between fomal and informal English? Maybe it's not that vital compared to learn English grammar, vocabulary, idioms and so on?!
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Unread postby Lynn » Sun Jun 24, 2007 12:25 pm

Weibing wrote:Thanks, Lynn,

Does it really matter to master the difference between fomal and informal English? Maybe it's not that vital compared to learn English grammar, vocabulary, idioms and so on?!


Hold on there! Well, first of all, thanks for your kudos. One does one's best, eh?

But about your last query. As critical as English grammar, vocab and idioms are to communication, one cannot totally discount formal and informal speech and writing. As per my last post, you will formalize your speech for a work related presentation. You will also need formal writing when you pitch your research project to the guys with the money. However, emails you exchange with colleagues concerning the project will not be at all formal, nor will the water cooler chit-chat. This is not to say that one absolutely must master the intricacies of formal/informal speech and writing, but a nodding acquaintance with them will make life a little easier.
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