Understanding Formal vs. Informal Language: A Comprehensive Guide

Anna Naumovychreviewed bySana Liashuk / more about Editorial Process13 min
Created: Feb 7, 2024Last updated: Feb 7, 2024
Formal and Informal English Language

English is a flexible language that allows us to communicate across different contexts. Whether speaking with friends, writing an academic paper, or giving a professional presentation, the level of formality used can vastly change the meaning and impact. Understanding when to use formal versus informal English and switching between the two is a key communication skill.

This comprehensive guide will examine the key differences between formal and informal English, provide examples of each, discuss when to use them, and give tips for navigating between the two registers smoothly. With the information provided here, you will be able to confidently adapt your communication style to fit any situation.

What is Formal English?

Formal English is used in professional, academic, or official settings. It is characterized by its adherence to grammatical rules, precise vocabulary, and structured tone. Formal language is commonly employed in professional correspondence, academic papers, and business communication. It has a serious tone and demonstrates respect for the audience. Some key characteristics include:

  • Complete sentences and proper grammar
  • Advanced vocabulary and longer words
  • Lack of slang, idioms, contractions
  • Objective and precise language
  • Third person perspective rather than first person.

For example, in a formal email to a potential employer, one would use phrases like "Dear Mr. Smith" and "Sincerely yours," maintaining a respectful and professional tone.

In academic writing, phrases like "Furthermore," "In addition," and "Moreover" are commonly used to link ideas and provide logical transitions between points. 

Similarly, in legal documents, formal language is crucial for precision and clarity. Terms like "hereinafter," "notwithstanding," and "heretofore" are used to establish legal relationships and define specific rights and obligations. 

What is Informal English?

In contrast, informal English is used in casual, spontaneous, and friendly conversations. It has a more relaxed, conversational tone. Informal language often includes colloquial expressions or slang. It fosters a sense of familiarity and closeness between individuals. 

Some informal English features include:

  • Incomplete sentences and fragmented phrases
  • Simplified grammar and structure
  • Slang, idioms, phrasal verbs
  • Contractions like isn’t, don’t, haven’t, they’re
  • First and second person perspectives
  • Opinions rather than facts
  • Repetition of words or phrases for emphasis.

Among friends, one might say, "Hey, what's up?" instead of the more formal "How are you?".

In formal English we would say: "The research methodology requires modification in order to achieve more accurate results." In informal English we would say: "We gotta change how we're doing the research to get better results."

When to Use Formal English

The level of formality used depends greatly on the situation, audience, and purpose of communication. Using formal language conveys professionalism, respect, and seriousness.

Formal English is most appropriate for:

  • When communicating with someone you don't know well
  • When addressing superiors or authority figures
  • Official communications like cover letters, resumes, presentations
  • Job interviews and business meetings
  • Academic writing such as research papers, essays, dissertations
  • Official documents like contracts, application forms, letters to authority figures
  • Diplomatic protocol
  • Legal documents
  • Speaking in professional or academic settings
  • Writing for a general audience.

When to Use Informal English

Informal language facilitates casual interactions and fosters a sense of camaraderie among peers. It allows for spontaneity and authenticity in communication, creating a relaxed atmosphere. For example, during a lunch break with colleagues, one might say, "Let's grab a bite to eat," using informal language to suggest a casual outing.

Informal English works best for:

  • Informal meetings and social gatherings 
  • Casual conversations with friends, family, peers
  • Personal communications like text messages, emails, social media
  • Creative writing such as poetry, fiction, lyrics
  • When it is appropriate - in advertising and marketing
  • Speaking to children or in relaxed social situations
  • Writing for a familiar audience
  • On social media.

For example, a job interview calls for formal English but chatting with co-workers around the office can be informal. 

The language used when publishing an academic paper would be much more formal than writing in a personal journal.

Examples of Formal vs. Informal

Let’s look at some examples to see the key differences between formal and informal style:

Examples of formal language: "I apologize for the inconvenience caused."

Examples of informal language: “Sorry about that.”

Formal: "Could you please provide me with further information?"

Informal: “Can you tell me more about it?”

Formal: "The company is experiencing a decline in revenue."

Informal: “The company's not making as much money as before.”

Formal: "It is essential to complete the project by the deadline."

Informal: “We need to finish the project on time.”

Formal: "I am interested in learning more about the job opportunity."

Informal: “I wanna know more about the job.”

Formal: "The meeting has been rescheduled to next Monday."

Informal: “We're meeting next Monday instead.”

Formal: "We need to address the issue as soon as possible."

Informal: “Let's deal with the problem ASAP.”

Formal: "I am writing to inquire about the status of my application."

Informal: “Just checking on my application. Any updates?”

Formal: "It is imperative that we adhere to company policies."

Informal: “We gotta follow the rules.”

Formal: "Please find attached the requested documents."

Informal: “I've sent the stuff you asked for.”

As you can see, formal English relies on sophisticated vocabulary, full sentences, and an objective tone. 

Informal English uses more casual language, contractions, idioms, and a conversational style.

Formal & Informal Verbs 

Verbs are an important part of speech that can shift in formality. In formal English, verbs are properly conjugated and tense is used precisely. In informal English, verbs may be truncated or conjugated loosely. Moreover, formal English relies on verbs like utilize, facilitate, elucidate, while informal English uses simpler verbs like use, help, explain. Choosing verbs carefully is key for controlling formality level.

Examples of informal language: "Let's go grab lunch."

Examples of formal language: “We should proceed to have lunch.”

Informal: "I gotta finish this by tomorrow."

Formal: “I must complete this by tomorrow.”

Informal: "She's gonna call you back later."

Formal: “She will contact you at a later time.”

Informal: "He's been seeing a therapist."

Formal: “He has been consulting with a therapist.”

Informal: "We're heading out soon."

Formal: "We are departing shortly."

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Formal & Informal Abbreviations 

Abbreviations are generally more common in informal English. Contractions like shouldn’t, don’t, or can’t are acceptable in moderation in informal contexts, but should be avoided in formal writing. For example:

Examples of informal language: "I don’t think we should go."

Examples of formal language: “I do not think we should go.”

Other informal abbreviations like kinda, gonna, gotta would be out of place in formal communication. For instance:

Informal: "I’m kinda tired."

Formal: “I am somewhat fatigued.”

Acronyms like ASAP or BTW are casual ways to shorten information that would be written out fully in formal English, such as “as soon as possible” and “by the way.”

Informal: "BTW, I'll be there in 10."

Formal: “By the way, I will arrive there in ten minutes.”

Informal: "ASAP, please."

Formal: “As soon as possible, if you would.”

Informal: "FYI, the meeting's been rescheduled."

Formal: “For your information, the meeting has been rescheduled.”

Informal: "IDK if I can make it."

Formal: “I don't know if I will be able to attend.”

Informal: "LOL, that's hilarious!"

Formal: “That is amusing.”

However, abbreviations like e.g. (stands for "exempli gratia," which means "for example") and i.e. (stands for "id est," which means "that is") are conventions accepted even in formal writing. 

Knowing which abbreviations align with the register being used is important.

Formal & Informal Slang

Slang should be predominantly confined to informal communication, where it adds color and informality. Slang terms like cool, dude, easy peasy, cringe, or yikes would not be appropriate for a professional context. Other very casual slang like wanna, gotta, or gimme have no place in formal communication. 

However, slang can be used judiciously in some informal business contexts, marketing, or advertising to convey authenticity. In formal academic writing, slang would generally detract from the scholarly tone, unless being analyzed or intentionally used in quotes or dialogue. Being able to recognize slang as too informal for most professional and academic purposes is a key linguistic skill.

Examples of informal language: "That's lit!"

Examples of formal language: “That is impressive.”

Informal: "She's a total boss."

Formal: “She is highly competent.”

Informal: "I'm gonna bail on the party."

Formal: “I will not attend the party.”

Informal: "This place is a dump."

Formal: “This location is in poor condition.”

Informal: "He's such a slacker."

Formal: "He lacks motivation."

Formal & Informal Emphasis Words

Words used for emphasis also differ between registers. In formal English, words like notably, significantly, substantially might be used to stress key information. For example, “The new policy will substantially improve employee retention.” 

In informal English, words like so, really, super, and totally can emphasize points instead. For instance, “This pizza is so amazing!” Likewise, informal emphasis words like absolutely, obviously, and literally are frequently overused in casual conversation, while formal English relies more on logic and facts for impact. Knowing when to temper emphasis is important for appropriate formality.

Examples of informal language: "She's really talented."

Examples of formal language: “She is exceptionally talented.”

Informal: "That's so cool!"

Formal: “That is quite impressive.”

Informal: "He's incredibly smart."

Formal: “He is highly intelligent.”

Informal: "This is super important."

Formal: “This is of utmost importance.”

Informal: "It's really fun."

Formal: "It is quite enjoyable."

Formal & Informal Transitions

Formal English utilizes transitional words and phrases to create structured, logical connections between ideas. Common formal transitions include: therefore, consequently, as a result, in conclusion, etc. Academic writing also relies heavily on transitions like: however, furthermore, additionally, in contrast. 

In informal English, transitions tend to be more direct and conversational. For instance: then, next, after, also, well, anyhow, anyway, so, and then. While all languages benefit from transitions, formal English requires more sophisticated and precise transitions to develop academic arguments or professional narratives.

Examples of informal language: "Anyway, let's move on."

Examples of formal language: “In any case, let us proceed.”

Informal: "But hey, that's life."

Formal: “However, such is life.”

Informal: "So, what's the plan?"

Formal: “Therefore, what is the proposed course of action?”

Informal: "And then, she said..."

Formal: “Furthermore, her statement was...”

Informal: "Well, I think..."

Formal: "Indeed, I believe..."

Other Formal and Informal Words

In addition to verbs, abbreviations, slang, and transitions, many other types of words vary in formality.

For example, formal English relies on Latin-derived vocabulary like "utilize" instead of simpler words like "use." Words of French origin like "commence" or "facilitate" are also more formal.

Informal English embraces more casual, colloquial words like "hang out" instead of "socialize." Direct words like "go," "big," or "stop" are more informal than elaborate options like "proceed," "substantial," or “cease.”

Likewise, descriptive words differ in formality. Formal words include "systematic," "adequate," "erroneous," while casual options are "organized," "enough," “wrong.”

Modes of address also change; formal English uses titles like "Doctor," "Professor," "Sir/Ma'am" versus informal choices like "Doc," "Dr. [Surname]," or first names.

In short, formal English adopts sophisticated, precise vocabulary while informal English uses common, everyday words. Considering connotations of formality helps determine word choice.

Here are some more examples:

Formal: Commence, elucidate, aforementioned

Informal: Start, explain, above-mentioned

Formal: Consequently, furthermore, however

Informal: So, also, but

Formal: Purchase, inquire, residence

Informal: Buy, ask, house

Formal: Colleague, companion, physician

Informal: Co-worker, friend, doctor

Formal: Utilize, terminate, approximately

Informal: Use, stop, about

Formal: Huge, tiny, acceptable, amiable, rude

Informal: Enormous, diminutive, okay, friendly, disagreeable.

Students Coffee Break

Tips for Switching Between Formal and Informal

As English learners, mastering the art of navigating between formal and informal language is essential for effective communication. Pay attention to the context and audience when choosing the appropriate register. Practice reading and listening to various forms of English to familiarize yourself with formal and informal expressions. Additionally, seek feedback from native speakers or language instructors to refine your language skills.

Here are some tips for smoothly switching between formal and informal English:

  • Identify your audience and purpose first - this determines the appropriate register
  • Make formal writing clearer and more direct; avoid unnecessarily complex language
  • Use contractions and personal pronouns to add a conversational tone when appropriate
  • Gradually introduce idioms and phrasal verbs to add color to informal speech
  • Temper opinions and personal perspectives in formal contexts
  • Use the third person point-of-view for objectivity
  • Proofread to check formality level matches the situation
  • Read texts aloud to identify any language that sounds too formal or informal
  • Ask others to review to get feedback on your formality level
  • Consume quality examples of formal and informal English.

With practice, you will be able to artfully adapt your communication style to connect with any audience in a meaningful way.

Formal & Informal Letter Expressions

The language used in letters and emails can vary greatly between formal and informal contexts. In formal letters and professional correspondence, standard greetings like “Dear Mr./Ms. [Surname]” are used along with formal closings such as “Sincerely” or “Best regards.” 

Informal emails and personal notes use more casual openings like “Hey” or “Hi [First Name]” and sign-offs like “Thanks!” or “Talk soon.”

Likewise, formal expressions of gratitude include “Thank you for your consideration” while informal emails use simpler phrases like “Thanks for helping me out.” 

Making requests also changes with formality, for example, “I would appreciate if you could provide an update at your earliest convenience” versus “Can you give me an update when you get a chance?” 

Formal letters also tend to use longer, complete sentences whereas informal notes often use sentence fragments and brief phrases. Adjusting letter language based on the relationship with the recipient and the purpose of the message is key for conveying respect and formality when needed.

  • Formal letter opening:

Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name],

To whom it may concern,

Dear Sir/Madam,

  • Informal letter opening:

Hey [Friend's Name],

Hi [Friend's Name],

Dear [Friend's Name],

  • Formal letter closing:

Sincerely,

Yours faithfully,

Respectfully,

  • Informal letter closing:

Thanks,

Cheers

Take care,

Best wishes,

  • Formal gratitude expression:

Thank you for taking the time to consider my proposal. I appreciate your assistance.

  • Informal gratitude expression:

Thx for the help!

  • Formal request:

I would be grateful if you could provide an update on the status of my application at your earliest convenience.

  • Informal request:

Can you let me know if you’ve heard anything about my application?

Promova Language Learning Options

Promova offers a wide range of effective English learning options to help improve your language skills. Whether you prefer online group lessons, personalized 1-on-1 tutoring, or learning through our convenient mobile app, Promova has the right tools to help you master English communication for any situation, formal or informal.

Our online group classes connect you with expert tutors and fellow students in a virtual classroom, allowing you to actively practice conversing in English. These sessions are not only about conversational skills but also cover essential aspects of the language such as grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, and writing.

For those seeking personalized attention, our online English tutors offer individual, 1-on-1 classes tailored to your skills, goals, and schedule. Whether you want to study business English, prepare for international exams, get ready for travel, or ace a job interview, our teachers are here to help you achieve your objectives.

For self-paced learning on-the-go, our innovative language learnin app, available for both Android and iOS smartphones, offers courses in 10 languages including German, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Korean, Arabic, and Chinese.

Promova also provides a quick placement test to assess your current English level, so we can customize your learning plan.

Conclusion

The key to skilfully using language is understanding when formal or informal English is best suited for the occasion. While informal language serves us well in relaxed, personal environments, formal English gives credibility and respect in professional academic settings.

Learning to identify situational cues, become comfortable code-switching between the two registers, and seeking feedback will enable you to effectively navigate diverse social and rhetorical contexts. Whether drafting an email to your professor or chatting with friends, you will be able to communicate with purpose and intention.

Confidently using both formal and informal language is a valuable skill that demonstrates linguistic dexterity and emotional intelligence. With this comprehensive guide from Promova, you now have the knowledge needed to tailor your communication style to any audience or situation.

FAQ

Is formal English required for all academic writing?

Generally yes, formal English is expected in academic writing to demonstrate objectivity and respect for the audience. However, exceptions can be made for creative works, dialogues, or quoted passages which intentionally use informal language.

Can I use contractions in formal writing?

Occasional use of contractions can be acceptable in formal writing, depending on the specific context and level of formality required. However, it's important to use them judiciously and consider the overall tone and style of the writing. In more formal settings such as academic papers, professional correspondence, or official documents, contractions are generally avoided to maintain a more serious and precise tone. However, in less formal situations such as certain types of business communication or informal reports, the use of contractions may be more acceptable. Ultimately, it's best to follow any guidelines provided by the specific context or audience.

Is it acceptable to use some informal language in a job interview?

It’s best to maintain formal English when interviewing, as this shows professionalism. After being hired, workplace culture determines how much informality is appropriate with colleagues.

How can I improve my formal writing skills?

Promova offers various learning opportunities to help you enhance your formal writing skills. Our online group classes and personalized 1-on-1 tutoring sessions are designed to cater to your specific needs and goals, whether you're looking to improve grammar, expand your vocabulary, or refine your writing style. Our expert tutors provide constructive feedback and guidance to help you develop clarity, precision, and professionalism in your formal writing. Additionally, our language learning app offers interactive lessons and exercises focused on formal language usage, allowing you to practice and reinforce your skills at your own pace. With Promova, you'll receive the support and tools you need to become a confident and proficient formal writer.

Is it appropriate to use emojis in formal emails?

Emojis are generally not suitable for formal emails or professional communication as they can be perceived as unprofessional or immature. It's best to express emotions and tone through the content of the message rather than relying on emojis.

Can I use personal pronouns in formal writing?

Personal pronouns such as "I," "you," and "we" should be used sparingly in formal writing, particularly in academic or professional contexts where objectivity and impartiality are valued. Instead, focus on conveying ideas and information objectively without relying heavily on personal pronouns. Use third-person pronouns or passive voice when appropriate.

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