10 differences between formal and informal language

Knowing when to use formal or informal English at work will depend on the business, the industry, who you are speaking with, and what you are talking about. When you are working cross-culturally or with people you do not know very well, using formal language helps eliminate any misunderstandings and helps you sound polite and professional.

Here are 10 tips on how to use formal and informal language.

1. Know in which situations you can use informal language

This table shows the main scenarios in which it is best to use formal language. Using very formal English in everyday situations can sound pompous, so always think about the context and your target audience.

Formal language

Informal language

When you are communicating with someone that you don’t know very well

Situations that are more relaxed and that involve people that you know well or know each other well

Business emails

Some business correspondence

Academic writing/ articles

In everyday conversations

Professional academic situations

Personal emails

Presentations

Social media

Reports

Advertising

Public tenders

Spontaneous speech

Official documents

Text messages

Talking to superiors

Talking to peers

Legal documents

Some meeting minutes

Public speaking (speeches, lectures, etc)

Networking or socialising with clients

Job interviews

Team meetings

2. Grammar

In formal language, grammar is more complex and sentences are generally longer. For example:

  • We regret to inform you that the delivery will be delayed due to adverse weather conditions [formal]
  • Sorry, but the delivery will be late because of the weather [informal]
  • Have you seen my glasses? [formal]
  • Seen my glasses? [informal]
  • I am sorry to have kept you waiting [formal]
  • Sorry to keep you waiting [informal]

3. Modal verbs

Formal language uses modal verbs. For example:

  • We would be grateful if….
  • Could you kindly inform us as as to whether..?

4. Pronouns

Formal language is less personal, and is more likely to use the ‘we’ as a pronoun rather than ‘I’: For example:

  • We can assist in the resolution of this matter. Contact us on our help line number [formal]
  • I can help you solve this problem. Call me! [informal]
  • We regret to inform you that……[formal]
  • I’m sorry, but…. [informal]
  • We have pleasure in announcing….[formal]
  • I’m happy to say…[informal]

5. Vocabulary

In formal language, words are generally longer. For example:

  • Require [formal] vs need [informal]
  • Purchase [formal] vs buy [informal]
  • Acceptable [formal] vs okay [informal]
  • Assistance [formal] vs help [informal]
  • Require [formal] vs want [informal]

6. Pronunciation

Speech is generally slower in formal language, allowing for correct and clear pronunciation, and the tone of the voice is more serious.

7. Contractions

These are not used in formal language. In informal language they are used for easier flow and faster speech. For example:

  • She has decided to accept the job offer [formal]
  • She’s decided to accept the job offer [informal]

8. Abbreviations and acronyms

These are not used in formal language. For example:

  • ‘As soon as possible’ [formal] vs ‘asap’ [informal]
  • ‘Advertisement’ [formal] vs ‘ad’ or ‘advert’ [informal]
  • ‘Photograph’ [formal] vs ‘photo’ [informal]

9. Colloquial language

This is not used in formal language. For example:

  • Would you like a cup of tea? [formal] vs Fancy a cuppa? [informal]
  • ‘Would you like to…’ [formal] vs ‘Do you want….’ [informal]

10. Emojis are never used in formal language!

Glossary

Eliminate: to remove or eliminate something.

Pompous: grand, solemn, or self-important.

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not to do something.

Serious: grave, thoughtful or subdued.


This blog has been written at level C2. Practise your reading and listening by reading the blogs below.

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