Working out when to use formal language and when to be informal is a big part of mastering a language.
In English, formal language is used in situations that are more serious, for example when you’re in a job interview or emailing your university professor. It can also be used when you’re speaking to someone you don’t know very well and want to make sure you sound respectful.
Informal language is used in more relaxed, everyday situations. Of course, this includes conversations with friends, family and other people you know well. Unlike many other languages, though, most English speakers tend to use informal language with people they’ve just met, too.
In fact, if you start a conversation with someone on the train or speak to someone working in a shop, they will usually find it strange if you use very formal language!
But what’s the difference between them?
Formal English uses longer, full sentences and perfect grammar. Often, there are lots of sub-clauses to explain details, and few unnecessary words.
For example, if you were describing a trip you went on in a formal context such as an essay, you might say something like:
“Last week, my sister and I took the train to Brighton, a popular seaside town in the South of England. Although it’s a pebble beach, and despite the cloudy weather, the beach was crowded with sunbathers and families. One group nearly lost their picnic when a strong wind blew their blanket and paper plates away.”
On the other hand, if you were telling the same story to a friend, you would be more relaxed about your grammar. You might use short or broken sentences, everyday phrases or slang, and plenty of delaying, qualifying or correcting expressions. For example:
“Oh, did I tell you me and my sister went to Brighton last week? We got the train down, it was really fun. I mean, it was really cold and there’s no sand, just, you know, stones, but it was still pretty good. All these people were trying really hard to sunbathe and have picnics and stuff, and then there was this, like, big gust of wind and all the plates and blankets were flying everywhere. So funny!”
We use formal English much more often when we’re writing and use informal English much more when we’re speaking, but that isn’t always the case.
For example, you would use more formal language when you’re giving an academic presentation or speech, and you would use informal language when you’re writing a message to friends.
If you’re unsure whether you should be using formal or informal language in a conversation, especially when you’re talking to someone older than you, or in a work situation, pay attention to how they speak to you and try to do the same. If you’re emailing or writing to someone and you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to use formal language. This makes sure that you always sound polite and professional.