When addressing one or more individuals in spoken and written communications, and especially in the workplace, it is important to use appropriate language depending on who the audience is, and the context of the spoken or written exchange. For example, using informal language when addressing a director or senior manager in a business meeting may show disrespect. Or, continuing to address a supervisor as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ at an informal social event may ‘offputting’.
Formal language is used in situations which are of a serious nature (i.e. business or academic meetings) and with people whom we do not know well, including strangers. Features of formal language include:
- Impersonal (3rd person) pronouns (it, they)
- use of the passive voice (It is a widely-known fact that … )
- complex grammatical sentences with more than one clause (Further to the memorandum sent this morning, all staff are required to..)
- formal vocabulary and phrases which express ideas precisely (considerable, substantial,the majority of)
- longer words with suffixes and prefixes (inadmissible, ineligible, irregardless)
Informal language is commonly used in more relaxed situations and with people whom we know well; for example, friends and co-workers. Features of informal language include:
- personal pronouns (I, you, we)
- use of the active voice (We all know that …..)
- simple grammatical sentences (We request all staff to ……)
- shorter words that express ideas generally (lots of, a lot, most of)
- colloquial expressions (“What a drag”, “That’s a no-brainer”, ”)
- contractions, abbreviations and ellipsis (“[To make a ] Long story short ..:, “[Have you] Seen John around?”, “the girl [whom]I met in Montreal”
Formal language is more commonly used in writing; however, in e-mails and correspondence with friends, we use informal language. Likewise, informal language is usually used when speaking; however, in many business and academic presentations, people use formal language.
English does not have a clear set of rules for the use of formal and informal language; however, speakers and writers do need to be careful how they speak or write in different situations.
In summary, the best policy when faced with the choice of using informal or formal language is to: 1) use formal language when first addressing the person (it’s safest), and 2) listen carefully to the other person when you first meet: listen for the words he/she is using and try to use the same words.