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.
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
Some business correspondence
Academic writing/ articles
In everyday conversations
Professional academic situations
Talking to superiors
Talking to peers
Some meeting minutes
Public speaking (speeches, lectures, etc)
Networking or socialising with clients
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..?
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]
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]
Speech is generally slower in formal language, allowing for correct and clear pronunciation, and the tone of the voice is more serious.
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!
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.
More English tips and skills
- How to sound natural with adverbs of attitude (listening skills)
- Working online: what are the implications for language and communication? (level C2)
- How to write effective business and work emails in English (Level B2)
- How to improve your telephone English (level C1)
- Business English for work and careers: 50 words you need to know (level C2)
- 'Fake news' expressions you should know (level C1)