How To Teach Formal And Informal Language

by Manjusha Nambiar

How To Teach Formal And Informal Language

People speak and write in different ways on different occasions. In Indian languages, for example, there are some complicated rules about how to speak to older people. English doesn’t have a system of this kind. However, in English too, some words and expressions are mainly used in formal situations. There are also words and expressions that are only used in informal situations. Writing tends to be formal whereas speech is usually informal. Here are a few tips to teach formal and informal language to your students.

The difference between formal and informal

Situations when people are careful about what they say and write can be considered formal situations. For example, business meetings, conferences and polite conversations with strangers are all formal situations. Conversations with friends and family members belong to the informal category.

Patterns in formal and informal language

Some grammatical structures have different formal and informal versions. For example, contracted auxiliary verbs and negatives are more common in informal speech and writing. In formal situations, we use uncontracted forms like do not, cannot and will not. Formal writing also tends to observe grammar and punctuation rules more strictly.

Most words and expressions in English are neither formal nor informal. However, longer and more complex words with prefixes or suffixes are more common in formal writing. An example is the word ‘commence’. It is common in formal speech and writing. In informal speech or writing we use a word like ‘begin’ or ‘start’ to express the same idea.

In informal language we use shorter words and phrases. Informal language also tends to be more idiomatic. Because idiomatic constructions can cause confusion they are mostly avoided in formal business communications. Students, especially, native students should be taught that they should avoid idioms in formal writing. ESL students, on the other hand, are unlikely to use them very often because they just don’t come naturally to them. Slang is another type of language not used in formal situations. These are words and expressions that suddenly become popular among a certain section of the public. Most slang words have a short lifespan. They can be used in everyday conversations or while chatting with your friends using an instant messaging system. They are inappropriate in all other situations and hence must be avoided.

Polite requests and questions

Students who cannot distinguish the difference between formal and informal language often commit the mistake of using very informal language while making a request or asking a question. In English, the use of informal language in such situations is considered quite rude. Therefore students should be taught the importance of using formal language in all situations where they want to be polite. Requests and questions can be made more polite by using yes/no questions. For example, ‘Could you lend me ten pounds, please?’ is much more polite than ‘Please lend me ten pounds.’

Manjusha Nambiar is an ESL tutor and content developer. She gives English grammar lessons and formal letter writing tips at her site

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