Formal and informal English

Formal language is more common when we write; informal language is more common when we speak. However, there are times where writing can be very informal, for example, when writing postcards or letters to friends, emails or text messages. There are also examples where spoken English can be very formal, for example, in a speech or a lecture.

Formal language and informal language are associated with particular choices of grammar and vocabulary.




She has decided to accept the job.

She’s decided to accept the job.

INFORMAL: She’s = contraction

The girl whom I met in Singapore was interested in working in Australia.

The girl I met in Singapore was interested in working in Australia.

INFORMAL: relative clause without the relative pronoun 'whom'

We will reduce spending.

FORMAL: phrasal verbs are rarely used

We will have to cut down on spending.

INFORMAL: phrasal verbs are often used

When one is angry, one acts less rationally.

FORMAL: ‘one’ is usually used for generic statements about people

When you are angry, you act less rationally.

INFORMAL: ‘you’ is usually used for generic statements about people

It was she who first saw what to do.

FORMAL: subject form of pronouns

It was her that first saw what to do.

INFORMAL: object form of pronouns

We think that it is possible.

We think it's possible.

INFORMAL: Ellipsis (leaving out words) is more common in informal language.

In which century did he live?

Which century did he live in?

INFORMAL: Prepositions come at the end of certain structures in informal language.



More formal vocabulary commonly involves longer words or words with origins in Latin and Greek. More informal vocabulary commonly involves shorter words, or words with Anglo-Saxon origins.



to appear

to seem

to assist / to aid

to help


a drink

to cease

to stop



to commence

to start



to consume

to eat

to demonstrate

to show

to depart

to leave

to endeavour

to try



to function

to work




at first

to obtain

to get

to purchase

to buy

to reside

to live



to retain

to keep

to require

to want





to terminate

to end




in the end


It can be tempting to use formal vocabulary in the hope that it will add more weight to what you are saying, or just sound generally more impressive or sophisticated. You should generally try to resist this temptation. Using formal English in everyday situations can make your writing sound pompous or pretentious.

Exercise 1.

Make the underline words more formal.

1, I’ll go and email Karen right away.

2, The researchers use the most modern equipment.

3, This problem often happens with older software.

4, The study showed a link between stress and ill-health.

5, The book gives us a picture of ordinary life in the Middle Ages.

6, The government tried to reduce unemployment by supporting new businesses.

7, Anyone looking for employment in the film industry faces a tough time.

8, How often does the temperature fall to below zero?

9, Poverty is a basic issue in the world today.

10, The doctor gave the patient a new drug that had not been fully tested.


Exercise 2.

Fill in the table with (informal) phrasal verbs and their (formal) one-word substitutions.


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