Formal, Semi-Formal, and Informal English

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Why is it important?

Would you wear this to a job interview? No, because it’s too informal.

formal-english

Would you wear this to the beach? No, because it’s too formal.

informal-english

In the same way, using English that is too formal or too informal for the situation can cause a bad impression.

Three levels of formality in English

Formal – Textbooks, official reports, academic articles, essays, business letters, contracts, official speeches

Semi-formal – Day-to-day interaction with colleagues and teachers, popular magazines/books, interviews, when talking with someone in authority or whom you respect

Informal – Interacting with friends, speaking or chatting online

Formal English

1. Longer/more complex sentences

Punctuation, proper grammar, and correct sentence structure are very important. A formal sentence you might see in an academic journal:

Research has shown that learning a second language, in addition to leading to expanded career and social opportunities, can also expand the reasoning capability of the brain, although this finding is disputed by some scientists.

A less formal way to express the same idea:

Learning another language can improve your career and social life. Some people also say it can make you smarter, but others disagree.

2. Larger and less common words

A formal sentence you might see in an economic report:

The economy is currently quite robust; nevertheless, some specialists predict an imminent recession.

A simpler, less formal way to say the same thing:

The economy is very strong right now, but some specialists say we’ll have a recession soon.

Some less formal words and their formal equivalents:

Less formal:help (n.)
buy
need
get
next/later
also/plus
whole
enough
More formal:assistance
purchase
require
obtain
subsequently
moreover
entire
sufficient

Download a list of more formal/informal words

3. Avoid phrasal verbs

The price went up.
The price rose/increased.

The client asked for a contract.
The client requested a contract.

The problems have come back.
The problems have returned.

We will cut down on spending.
We will reduce spending.

4. Avoid contractions

I’m, you’re, can’t, don’t, wasn’t, it’s…

The shipment hasn’t arrived.
The shipment has not arrived.

They’re manufactured in China.
They are manufactured in China.

He’s the director of marketing.
He is the director of marketing.

We’d like to inform you…
We would like to inform you…

What about this? – The company’s employees

This is OK to use in formal English because it’s a possessive, NOT a contraction! It means “The employees of the company.”

With possessives, you can use either ‘s or “of the” – but try to avoid using “of the” multiple times in a single phrase:

the terms of the client’s contract
NOT: the terms of the contract of the client

5. NO idioms, slang, text speak

Idiom: The software is a piece of cake.

  • The software is quite user-friendly.
  • The software is extremely easy to use.

Slang: A million bucks in profit.

  • A million dollars in profit.

Text speak: Tks & we look 4ward 2 meeting u.

  • Thanks, and we look forward to meeting you.

Also avoid shortened words:

The info was incomplete.
The information was incomplete.

The results have arrived from the lab.
The results have arrived from the laboratory.

fruits and veggies
fruits and vegetables

Semi-Formal English

1. Phrasal verbs & contractions = OK

Could you look over this report?
look over = review and check for errors

She came up with a great idea.
came up with = created, invented, thought of

I’m available on Friday morning.
The directors weren’t happy.

2. Some idioms are OK, but avoid slang and text speak

This project is on the back burner.
on the back burner = not a priority at the moment

We’re operating in the red.
in the red = no money, negative cash flow

Semi-formal (inviting your boss): “Would you like to join me for lunch?”
Informal (inviting your best friend): “Hey, wanna grab a bite to eat?”

Semi-formal: “Hello, how are you?”
Informal: “Wassup?”

Semi-formal: “The conference was great!”
Informal: “It was awesome!” “It was the bomb!”

3. Use polite English

Say “I’d like…” instead of “I want…”

When making requests, use “could you” and “please,” don’t just give commands: Say “Could you please call me later?” and not just “Call me later.”

Another part of polite English is making criticisms and negative comments in an indirect way:

You’re wrong.
I’m afraid you’re mistaken.

I disagree.
I’m of a different opinion. / I see it differently.

This is terrible work.
This could be improved.

I don’t like it.
I don’t really care for it.
It’s not my cup of tea.
I’d prefer…

Informal English

1. Shorter, simpler sentences – perfect grammar is not as important

(So don’t be so nervous about mistakes when speaking!)

“Have you finished your work yet?” –> “Finished your work yet?”

“I’m really liking this book.”
(“like” should technically not be in the -ING form here)

“But I don’t think so.”

Starting sentences with “but,” ending sentences with prepositions, using sentence fragments – these are all done in informal spoken English.

2. Expressions/exclamations

  • um, uh, like, lemme see… = hesitation, when you need a moment to think before speaking
  • I mean… = to clarify
  • …you know? = to check if the other person understands
  • Gotcha. = I understand
  • How come? = Why?
  • Yeah right. = a sarcastic way to say “I don’t believe you.”
  • I’ll say! = I definitely agree with you
  • wow! = surprise
  • oops = accident
  • yuck = that’s disgusting

3. Phrasal verbs, slang, and idioms are used VERY frequently

This is one reason that watching movies and TV shows in English is difficult… even if you have good vocabulary and grammar! You may not have learned the phrasal verbs, slang, and idioms in your textbook.

Phrasal verb: “I won’t put up with this!”
put up with = tolerate

Idiom: “Could you give me a hand?”
give me a hand = help me

Slang: “I aced the test!”
aced = got an excellent grade

The Phrasal Verbs in Conversation Course and the English Idioms Course can help you learn these expressions in context!

4. Reductions when speaking
(in both semi-formal and informal English)

He’s gonna be angry.
gonna = going to

I wanna learn how to ski.
wanna = want to

Didja like the movie?
didja = did you

We hafta leave now.
hafta = have to

I bought apples n grapes.
n = and

Courses to help you learn:

Business English Course – Focuses on formal and semi-formal English used in meetings, presentations, interviews, letters and e-mails, and vocabulary for jobs and careers.

Everyday English Speaking Course – Daily situations, socializing, phrases, expressions not found in textbooks, how native English speakers say things in real life.

Phrasal Verbs in Conversation – Teaches phrasal verbs in context, through dialogues, making it easier to learn and understand them. Quizzes and writing exercises help you put the phrasal verbs into practice immediately.

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