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Formal, Semi-formal, and Informal English

Would you wear swimwear to a job interview? Or a black suit to the beach? Probably not – it would be both impractical and strange. The same goes for how we use the English language. Sometimes you need to be formal; other times informal works better.
A man on a beach half dressed in swimwear and half in a formal suit. Photo.
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When you speak to your sister or brother, you express yourself differently than when you talk to a teacher or a boss. In a job interview, you choose different words than you do at a party. And when you text your friends, the messages look very different from a job application. We know that we have to use appropriate language in the correct situations. If you are too formal or too informal in the wrong settings, you may blow it big time – or realise that you have underestimated the delicacy of the situation.

For anyone with English as a second language, this is a constant challenge, because the nuances between what is perceived as polite or impolite are very difficult to detect for anyone who does not have English as a mother tongue. This is something that it takes years to master.

We operate with different levels of formality in English, and the levels are associated with particular choices of grammar and vocabulary. In order to master the English language, it is important to develop an understanding of the different levels and practise using them in the correct situations.

You will often find that people refer to two levels of formality: formal and informal English. However, in this article we will, for the sake of clarity, present three different levels: formal, semi-formal (neutral), and informal language.

Let’s take a closer look at the three levels:

Formal English

Formal English is primarily used in written communication, such as official reports, academic articles, business letters, and contracts. There are also examples where spoken English can be very formal, for examples in speeches, lectures, or interviews. In general, formal English expresses respect and distance to the person you are communicating with.

Formal English is characterised by the following:

  • It makes use of fairly long and complex sentences. Example: The evidence taken from the observation of the behaviour of apes and children suggests that there are three clearly separable groups of simple causes for the outbreak of fighting and the exhibition of aggressiveness by individuals.
  • As the sentence above demonstrates, formal English also use a fairly complex vocabulary. For example, instead of the word 'buy' you would use the word 'purchase'. Instead of the word 'enough' you could use the word 'sufficient'.
  • There is also a strong focus on correct grammar. The more complex the sentence, the more important grammar and sentence structure become.
  • Phrasal verbs are usually avoided. Phrasal verbs are combinations of a verb with a preposition or adverb, as in 'get up', or 'go through'. For example: 'The client asked for a meeting' is less formal than 'The client requested a meeting'.
  • Contractions are never used in formal writing. Instead, go for the full form: 'he’s' = 'he is' / 'they’re' = 'they are'.
  • Formal English does not accept slang or textspeak. Avoid expressions like 'a million bucks' (a million dollars) and 'He’s loaded' (very rich). And you would never, ever write 'Tks & we look 4ward 2 meeting u!!!'

Semi-formal English (Neutral English)

Semi-formal English is more neutral. This is the language you would use when you talk to people you know, but perhaps not on a personal level, for example when you talk to your teacher or when you speak to colleagues in a work setting. It is used both in written and spoken communication.

  • The sentences are often shorter and less complex than in formal English. If you take a look at the complex sentence presented above and compare it with this, you may notice a difference: 'If we look at how apes and children behave, we see the same three reasons why fights start in each group.
  • The vocabulary is simpler and more colloquial than formal English. You could use everyday words like 'stop' and 'meet' instead of more formal words like 'terminate' and 'convene'.
  • Phrasal verbs are often used. You could very well say ‘Could you look over this report’ instead of the more formal ‘Could you review this report?’
  • Contractions like 'I’m', 'they’re' and 'hasn’t' are used, but you can also use the full form ('I am', 'they are', 'has not').
  • Slang and textspeak should still be avoided.

Informal English

Informal English is the type of language you would use with friends, and when speaking or chatting online. This is not the type of language you would use in homework assignments or on your exam. Informal language has some of the following characteristics:

  • Short and simple sentences are commonly used, and grammar plays a less important role. Often, you would skip words that seem superfluous for the meaning to be clear. For example, 'Coming?', 'Finished your homework yet?'
  • Phrasal verbs are more common than not. You would not request a meeting, you would ask for a meeting.
  • The vocabulary is colloquial and fairly simple, including slang, textspeak. and abbreviations: 'What's up?', 'BTW', 'LOL', 'Chill out'...
  • Reductions and contractions are also common: 'I gotta go', 'I wanna see', 'He’s gone', 'We're happy'..

Is formal language more polite?

Many believe that the more formal your language is, the more polite you are. Well, not always. Formality isn't everything. The truth is that you have to consider every situation individually. Using formal English is a sign of respect, but it also creates a distance between you and the one you are talking to. It can seem awkward and unnatural, and sometimes even cold and unfriendly. Sometimes, going for a more neutral, semi-formal English may feel safer and more inclusive. It really all depends on the situation. If you are working internationally, or receiving clients or colleagues from abroad, it is a good idea to research what standards are used.

So, pay attention to what is going on around you and how other people write, talk, and behave. And if you should end up in awkward situations where you feel that your language skills are insufficient, remember that English has a few magic words that often work miracles: ‘excuse me’, ‘thank you’ and ‘please’. These words are used much more frequently in English than in Norwegian, regardless of your level of formality.

Below, you will find files containing examples of words and expressions that are used in formal and less formal settings. Download the lists to your computer, and use them in your writing. The lists are not complete, so add other words that you know of.


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CC BY-SAWritten by: Karin Søvik.
Last revised date 02/02/2021

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