1. Three Levels: Formal, Neutral and Informal English
Look at three sentences:
- Could I disturb you for a minute?
- Can I ask you something?
- You got a sec?
All of these sentences have the same basic meaning: I want to talk to you and ask you about something.
However, the tone is different. Can you see how?
These three sentences show three levels of formality. The first sentence is formal; it shows politeness, respect and distance.
The second sentence is neutral; it does not have a formal or an informal tone.
The third sentence is informal; it shows that you and the person you are speaking to are familiar with each other, and you don’t need to make an effort to be polite or respectful.
Actually, there are more than three levels of formality. For example:
- Might I ask you something?
- May I take a moment of your time?
- Could I disturb you for a minute?
These sentences are all formal. The first is extremely formal. It’s probably too formal to use in most situations. The other two are both formal; the second is probably more formal than the third.
Why ‘probably’? Formality isn’t absolute. It also depends on context and intonation, so it’s not just about the words you use.
So, there are many levels of formality. However, when you speak or write in English, it’s useful to think about three levels: formal, neutral and informal.
But when should you use these different levels of language?
2. When to Use Formal, Neutral, or Informal English
In my experience, many English students use language which is too formal. They think: formal language is more polite. Polite language is better.
No, not always!
Language which is too polite puts distance between you and the person you’re talking to. At best, this will sound awkward and unnatural. At worst, you can sound cold and unfriendly if you use language which is too formal.
Knowing when to use formal language depends mostly on context. Let me ask you a question: when should you use formal language?
Maybe you said things like: in job interviews, in business meetings or negotiations, when talking to older people, when writing business emails, and so on.
The fact is, it’s not possible to say you should always use formal language in these situations. It always depends.
For example, take job interviews. Some companies have a very corporate culture, with a strict hierarchy and lots of rules and procedures. Other companies are more relaxed, and pay less attention to rules and job titles.
Obviously, if you’re going for a job interview at the first kind of company, you’ll want to dress, act and speak formally, to fit in with the company culture. On the other hand, if you go for an interview at the second kind of company, where things are more relaxed, it wouldn’t be appropriate to speak very formally.
So, always think about the actual situation in front of you. If you’re not sure, try to listen to other people around you. If people around you are speaking informally to each other, you probably shouldn’t try to sound very formal.
Also, if you don’t know, then use neutral language. Neutral language is safe. You can use it in any situation.
Informal language is very important in spoken English, but you need to be careful. Using informal language at the wrong time could sound disrespectful or rude.
Next, let’s consider some of the main differences between formal, neutral and informal English.
3. Sentence Structure in Formal and Informal English
Formal English tends to use longer, more complicated sentence structures.
Informal and neutral English tend to use shorter, simpler sentence structures.
- I was wondering if you could make yourself available on Wednesday to provide more detailed guidance on these matters. –> This is a formal sentence. You can see that it’s quite long, with a complex structure.
- Do you have time on Wednesday to help us with these problems? –> This is neutral.
- You got some free time on Wednesday to talk about this? –> This is more informal.
You can see that the neutral and informal sentences are much shorter and simpler.
Let’s do one more example. I’ll give you three sentences. Can you see which one is formal, which is neutral, and which is informal?
- We should have a word with him first.
- It may well be necessary to contact him before we make a decision.
- We need to talk to him before we decide.
Which is which?
The first sentence is informal.
The second sentence is formal.
The third sentence is neutral.
Did you get it right? Again, you can see that the formal sentence is longer and more complex.
Another point is that we sometimes leave out words in informal English, especially in questions.
For example, in the question Are you sure? it is possible to leave out the word are and just say You sure? In fact, you could even leave out the word you and just ask a question with one word: sure?
Let’s see some more examples of this:
- Will you be joining us? –> Formal—full form
- Are you coming? –> Neutral—full form
- You coming? –> Informal—short form
- Do you have any suggestions? –> Formal—full form
- Have you got any ideas? –> Neutral—full form
- Any ideas? –> Informal—short form
Do you notice any other differences between the formal, neutral and informal sentences you’ve seen in this section?
You might notice that we use different words in formal, neutral and informal English. Vocabulary is another important difference between formal and informal language. Let’s look!
4. Formal and Informal English Vocabulary
Formal English tends to use more literary, rare or old-fashioned vocabulary. Generally, if you want to be formal, you need to be very precise with your use of vocabulary.
Neutral English tends to use simpler, more common words.
Informal English, like neutral English, uses simple and common vocabulary. However, informal English also includes slang, phrasal verbs and colloquial language which are not features of neutral English.
Informal English is also generally looser. It uses more general words, and the meaning is understood from the context.
Let’s look at this in some more detail:
- We need to verify the data before we proceed.
- We need to check the data before we continue.
- We need to check everything before we carry on.
You can see that the formal sentence uses more literary vocabulary: verify instead of check, and proceed instead of continue.
The neutral sentence uses simple, common words.
The informal sentence is less precise: instead of saying the data, we say everything. It also uses a phrasal verb: carry on instead of proceed or continue.
In informal English, it’s common to use vocabulary in a less precise way. For example, you might use words like stuff or things to refer to specific things. You wouldn’t do this if you were speaking formally.
- You are required to collect your belongings and vacate the premises.
- You need to take your personal possessions and leave the building.
- You need to get your stuff together and get out.
Again, you can see more literary vocabulary in the formal sentence (required, collect, belongings, vacate, premises).
On the other hand, the informal sentence uses more basic vocabulary, including multi-part verbs like get … together or get out.
The informal sentence is also much less precise. It simply refers to stuff, instead of belongings or possessions. It also says …get out, without specifying the place (the premises or the building).
The neutral sentence is somewhere in between. In neutral language, you generally choose the simplest word you can. So, you would say take instead of collect, leave instead of vacate, and so on.
You can also see that the informal sentence is much more direct than the other two. This is an important part of formality in English.
5. Directness in Formal and Informal English
Formal language tends to be much more indirect. Formal language often sounds quite impersonal, because it uses fewer personal pronouns like I, you, he, she, etc.
Informal language tends to be more direct and personal. Informal language can be so direct that it can sound aggressive or rude if you use it in the wrong situations.
Neutral language is in the middle, similar to other situations you’ve seen.
- Lessons need to be learnt from the mistakes which were made. –> formal
- I hope you can learn from where you went wrong. –> neutral
- You made a mess of this and you need to do better next time. –> informal
You can see that the formal sentence is impersonal. How does it achieve this?
First, the formal sentence uses the passive. This makes it possible to avoid using personal pronouns. The other two sentences include the word you, but the formal sentence doesn’t.
This makes it possible to express the idea without mentioning or blaming a specific person, which can be useful in certain situations.
The neutral sentence is personal, because it uses you to refer to the listener. However, it’s not very direct, and wouldn’t generally be considered rude, even in a professional setting.
The informal sentence is very direct. If you say this to someone, you’re not hiding what you think!
This can be useful if you need to make yourself clear, but it could also sound rude or aggressive. It’s not appropriate in all situations.
Let’s do one more example. Look at three sentences. Can you tell which is formal, which is neutral, and which is informal?
- We won’t be able to do anything until we deal with these issues.
- We won’t be able to get anywhere until you sort this out.
- It may be difficult to make progress until these matters are resolved.
Can you tell which is which?
The first sentence is neutral, the second is informal, and the third sentence is formal.
You can see that the formal sentence uses an impersonal structure (with it), rather than a personal pronoun (we or you).
Again, this is useful if you want to be respectful and indirect, because it isn’t clearly directed at one person.
The neutral sentence is more personal. Can you see the important difference between the neutral and informal sentences?
The neutral sentence uses we in both parts, while the informal sentence is more direct: …until you sort this out.
The points you’ve seen so far in this lesson are true for both spoken and written English. However, there are some features of formality which apply only to written English. Let’s take a look.
6. Formal and Informal English Writing
In writing, informal language uses contractions like he’ll, it’d, or we’re. In informal written English, you can also use abbreviations, like btw for by the way, ttyl for talk to you later, etc.
In formal writing, you generally wouldn’t use contractions or abbreviations.
In neutral writing, you can use contractions and some abbreviations. However, some abbreviations, like plz for please, are informal and shouldn’t be used if you want to sound neutral.
There are also some abbreviations which are possible in formal English. For example, HR for Human Resources would be okay in formal language. If you want to write something in formal English, and you aren’t sure whether an abbreviation is appropriate or not, then it’s best to write the full form.
Let’s see some examples:
- Just for your information, we would like to schedule another meeting in October. –> Formal—there are no contractions or abbreviations.
- Just for your information, we’d like to arrange another meeting in October. –> Neutral—uses contractions, but no informal abbreviations.
- Just FYI, we’d like to fix up a meeting in Oct. –> Informal—with contractions and abbreviations.
Written language is often held to a higher standard than spoken language, so it’s important to get the tone right. In particular, don’t use language which is too informal. If you’re not sure, aim for a neutral tone.
Let’s look at one more example:
- Thank you for all the hard work you have done. –> Formal—there are no contractions or abbreviations.
- Thank you for the hard work you’ve done. –> Neutral—uses contractions, but no informal abbreviations.
- Thx for everything you’ve done. –> Informal—with contractions and abbreviations.
Hopefully, now you have a good understanding of formality in English, and how to use formal, neutral and informal English.
Thanks for watching this lesson from Oxford Online English!