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Difference between formal and informal English

Posted: Mon May 21, 2007 11:56 pm
by Weibing

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.)


Posted: Sun May 27, 2007 1:41 pm
by Kevin Vosper
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

Posted: Sun May 27, 2007 4:43 pm
by Weibing
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,


Posted: Fri Jun 01, 2007 12:32 pm
by Weibing
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!!!

Posted: Fri Jun 22, 2007 11:41 am
by Weibing
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'!

Posted: Sat Jun 23, 2007 3:33 pm
by Lynn
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.

Posted: Sat Jun 23, 2007 3:39 pm
by Lynn
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.

Posted: Sun Jun 24, 2007 10:34 am
by Weibing
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?!

Posted: Sun Jun 24, 2007 12:25 pm
by Lynn
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.

Posted: Sun Jun 24, 2007 11:17 pm
by Weibing
Thanks, Lynn,

I'd like to add a little more to the quesiton.

More tips:

1. Most of the words could be used in both formal and informal situations, e.g. 'modal', 'be', 'preposition' etc.

2. In formal situations such as 'business writing','research paper','some journalism' and 'formal speeches', you just avoid using 'swearword', 'slang', 'taboo', 'jargon' etc.

More questions:

1. Phrase verbs?
'You should get up early in the morning.' - sounds natural.
'You should rise early in the morning.' - sounds a bit formal.

Is it acceptable using 'phrase verb' in a formal situation?

2. Idioms?
Some idioms is understood and fit in with very well. Some are strange. Could we use 'idiom' in a formal environment and to what extent? By the way, Lynn seems to like using some idioms. Next time when you use them, could you please give the meaning of the idiom for us to understand them well?!

Posted: Mon Jun 25, 2007 10:13 am
by Lynn

In answer to your tips, I would answer yes and yes. Many of the words that we use in formal and informal speech are the same. We should avoid swearing, taboo words, slang and jargon in formal speech, unless these are used for emphasis, to underline a point. In such cases, one must be very careful. Sometimes, depending on the audience's overall level of English, these words need to be treated with caution even in informal settings.

Your query concerning phrasal verbs is interesting. I have not considered this before, but I should imagine that phrasal verbs, like all collocations, need to be considered on an individual level. Your example of "get up"/"rise" is not so much a matter of formality as current English usage. I think "rise" is a bit archaic. It isn't widely used with the meaning "to get up" by most English speakers now. However, my perception may very well be colored by the fact that I am an American. I would be very interested in seeing what anyone else, especially non-Americans, have to say about this one.

About idioms: I apologize for confusing you by anything that I said/wrote. I was not actually aware of using idioms when I posted. If you would post again and let me know exactly what is causing you problems, I will be happy to explain. Idioms are tricky, because we use them all the time. Many speakers will use idioms in formal speech. Most of the time, we do so unconsciously: what I mean here is that the idioms are a planned part of the speech, because that is the way we express that particular idea. I am very interested in knowing other NESs opinions on this.

I do understand your concern and confusion with idioms. I have the same trouble with Cantonese. Many times, even though I understand every single word used, I have no idea what the entire phrase is supposed to mean. For instance, the first time I heard a group of school kids screaming "add oil" at a competition, I had to ask a few questions to find out that they weren't concerned with cooking, but that their team mates do well. I don't know if this idiom is used in Mandarin, so I hope you understand what I'm talking about.

Posted: Tue Jun 26, 2007 2:54 pm
by Weibing

'Add oil', a Chinese idiom, really has nothing to do with cooking, but may have something to do with driving. If you want a car to move quickly, you need to add more oil to the engine. 'Add oil! add oil!' is like 'go! go!' - imagine a cheerleader shouting encouragement at a sports event.

As for idioms, it's not all fun and games for a non-English speaker to use English idioms properly. First of all, you should understand the meaning of an idiom. Then you should make sure your readers are likely to understand it. Bear in mind you use idioms to emphasize or to make a particular meaning clearer. Last but not least, don't overuse idioms, only when they are necessary and appropriate.

By the way, I'm also interested in having others' opinions. It seems to me just you and me are discussing here, doesn't it?

Posted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 3:28 pm
by Lynn
Hi, Weibing. Here's my attempt to answer you.

'Add oil', a Chinese idiom, really has nothing to do with cooking, but may have something to do with driving. If you want a car to move quickly, you need to add more oil to the engine. 'Add oil! add oil!' is like 'go! go!' - imagine a cheerleader shouting encouragement at a sports event.

Exactly. But the first time I heard this, all I could think of was that one would add oil to the wok to keep the squid from burning.

As for idioms, it's not all fun and games for a non-English speaker to use English idioms properly. First of all, you should understand the meaning of an idiom. Then you should make sure your readers are likely to understand it. Bear in mind you use idioms to emphasize or to make a particular meaning clearer. Last but not least, don't overuse idioms, only when they are necessary and appropriate.

You are right about this. I know that many teachers instruct students to be careful about using idioms. This is wise advise, because overuse indicates an inability to use the language correctly, while misuse, although comical at times, can be distracting and misleading. Idioms can convey a meaning very well, but if the idiom is misused, meaning can become distorted.

By the way, I'm also interested in having others' opinions. It seems to me just you and me are discussing here, doesn't it?

Yes, it does. I think we're having a good discussion, but there a few points where we could benefit from other input.

Posted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 4:19 pm
by Ben

You are having a nice discussion, but as Lynn has guessed, I am mightily busy at the moment so I don't have much time to read or write (I'm avoiding my responsibilities at the moment)! So, quickly then...

Formal/informal is better understood as appropriate tone, I think. Get up vs. rise is best described as modern vs. archaic. Not having studied the matter too much, my feeling is that the use of phrasal verbs and idioms should be relative to your audience. An executive meeting should be a very formal affair, but business language is a minefield of phrasal verbs and idioms: thinking outside the box, take that off line, at the end of the day, blue sky thinking, touch base, ballpark, etc. are all used becuase that is the language of the office. A presidential address would use fewer idioms because it will be translated into many languages and the audience will be practically unknown.

Personally, when I start working in a new place I keep correspondence and communication simple and impersonal until I get to know my audience (this doesn't include teaching, when teaching you have to jump right in!) and then I slowly start to make jokes and try and adapt to the tone they are using.

OK, time's up for me...


Posted: Thu Jun 28, 2007 2:13 am
by Lynn
Ben, thank you for your excellent examples.

Weibing, what Ben has to say illustrates my point about using idioms even in a formal presentation. As a doctor, you will use certain idioms and jargon, even in a formal, talk that most people would not understand. The same is true in any specialized field. Depending on your particular speciality, you may even use idioms that would be strange or unintelligible to other doctors in other specialities. The trick is to be sure that the idioms and/or jargon you used is suited to the audience you are addressing.

Posted: Thu Jun 28, 2007 1:24 pm
by Weibing
Hi, Lynn and Ben,

So, we've come to the conclusion that it's appropriate to use idioms even in a formal situation.

Then comes another two questions:
1. What's formal or informal idioms?
2. Could the British understand AmE idioms well? Or vice versa?

Posted: Thu Jun 28, 2007 2:18 pm
by Ben
I'm not sure I can distinguish between formal and informal idioms (other than those which are obviously rude!). Again, it depends on your audience. The Watergate tapes (secret recordings Nixon made of all conversations in the White House) showed that the President and his advisors used (what was at the time) scandalous language in private, while using appropriate language in public.

As for Brits understanding American idioms, they have a fair chance because of the shared media culture (TV, movies, music). The Americans on the other hand (of which I am one) are basically helpless because of the insular nature of mainstream American mass media. You can figure them out based on context etc., but sometimes it takes effort.

Dublin rhyming slang is a different story, however... ... /a-d.shtml ... _Slang.htm

Posted: Sun Jul 01, 2007 9:04 am
by Lynn
Oh, Ben, I love your Dublin rhyming slang. It is quite colorful.

Weibing, I'm not sure that we distinguish between formal and informal idioms. But I can answer your second query. Because I have lived in Hong Kong for 27 years, I have accumulated a few British idioms, phrases and pronunciations. I am usually not even aware of them until we return to the States. Then, family and friends let me know that I am speaking another language. Sometimes, even though Americans understand British idioms, they still sound foriegn to them. On the whole, I agree with what Ben had to say about this. Americans tend to export their movies all over the world, but they don't really import them from other countires, much to their own loss.

Posted: Thu Jul 05, 2007 1:22 pm
by Weibing
Hello Lynn and Ben

I appologize for taking so long to respond!

As for the distinguish between formal and informal English, I'd like to add a little more. The degree of formality really depends on 'your audience'. You should be more formal to show your respect to the senior, respected, distinguished, honorable and so on. On the other hand, when you're in a chit-chat room, it isn't a good idea to be too formal - you may sound a little awkward or clumsy. Here, I confess, sometimes I could hardly even type one word to join them in the chatroom, even though I could really understand what they're talking about - I'm just not used to the informality. All I've leanred is standard English. Maybe I should learn more informality in the chatroom, if I really want to sound like a native English speaker?!

I've been learning English for ages. Here I'm referring to both BrE and AmE, or other English. When I use English, I'm rarely aware which English I'm using. But someone pointed out I should stick to one version - it isn't a good idea to mix the two. I do believe that Brits are more likely to understand Americans better.

I'd say I'm getting to like English writing. (I don't really like writing in my mother tongue, though.) Writing could be so fun! And no doubt, now, when I'm writing, I try to be not too formal or too informal - maybe I'm not alone to do so. I prefer a colloquial way to write - natural, clear, easy to read and to the point. I really enjoy it!