Differences between formal and nonAny discussion of differences between formal and non-formal language must start with a definition of these terms--a difficult exercise in itself. A search reveals several definitions, some focusing on written versus spoken language, others on universal aspects versus local community/regional variations, and still others on specific technical points. One website even identifies formal language with what I would call “standard” language, one that is free of idiomatic, slang, or otherwise syntactically or grammatically “incorrect” usage specific to a region, culture, or community, that fluent speakers of the language should not have trouble understanding anywhere in the world where it is spoken. My own notion of formal language tends to focus on differences in usage observable within the same community or region or place, based on context, rather than on correct versus incorrect grammar/construction etc., although sometimes this might be a point of difference. Also, formal and informal language may be differently defined depending on the language in question; the present discussion is with regard to english
Formal language is usually found in technical writing or otherwise formal situations even in speech, as at a political conference of nations, whereas informal language is used in everyday conversations. Generally, formal language tends to make more frequent use of passive voice, as in The matter was investigated rather than They looked into the matter (informal). Also to be noted in the above examples are the different words used in the two forms. Differences in words, phrases or expressions, and differences in voice (active/passive), account for much of the distinction between formal and informal language. Other widely recognized differences include abbreviated forms in informal language, such as I’d (for I had, or I would depending on context), haven’t (have not or do not have, depending on context), won’t (will not) etc.; the use of first person plural (we) instead of singular (I) in academic papers; the omission of we altogether in favor of the passive voice in formal contexts where the term would otherwise legitimately refer to a group such as a government agency; and generally the omission of much detail in informal statements (e.g. If you require further details about the application process or other matters concerning the job you may contact us by email or telephone (formal) versus Please call or email if you have any questions.)
The past millennium has also seen a gradual erosion of the line between formal and informal contexts. Many situations that were once considered formal are now treated more informally, and the distinction between formal and informal has become a question of degree
than a dichotomy. Many offices no longer observe formality, either in dress codes or in communication. In organizational communications, short email messages are replacing the old letters and memos with a date and proper formatting of the contents with such details as full address of sender and receiver. Elaborate reference statements such as “This letter has reference to ….” are entirely omitted; and a simple “Hi/Hello [followed by first name of receiver]” has replaced “Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms [with last name]”, or may even be omitted completely in email communication. Of course, formal usage can also vary by place or region.
Differences between formal and informal language become salient in the teaching of english
as a second language (TESL). It is impractical to teach either one exclusively, since everyday situations can involve both formal and informal communication. Differences in expressions are particularly difficult for a learner to pick up immediately: they are picked up with practice over time. Another issue is that often it is difficult to categorize something as purely formal or informal. “Unemployment rates are going up” can be readily seen as informal compared to “Unemployment rates are increasing.” But what about “Unemployment rates are rising” –this one is more difficult to categorize. Finally, the teacher of TESL should be aware that language is not a stable entity; it is constantly in flux. Thus, for instance, abbreviations such as can’t and don’t that were taboo at one time in written english
, regardless of context, are to be found in most published works today. Similarly, the grammatically incorrect use of their to refer to the third person singular, stemming from recent developments regarding non-sexist language, is now almost imperceptibly creeping in to regular informal and formal language.
1. Differences between Formal and Informal english
. Available at www.englishcafe.com. Source page: http://www.englishcafe.com/blog/differences-between-formal-and-informal-english
2. Formal and Informal english
, Studieverkstaden 2007, Microsoft Word document. Source page: www.mah.se/upload/.../Formal%20and%20Informal%20English.doc
3. The Difference between Formal and Informal Writing, by Anis Siddiqi. Available at www.ezinearticles.com. Source page: http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Difference-Between-Formal-and-Informal-Writing&id=594208
4. Various comments on the teacher discussion forum, available at www.englishclub.com. Source page: http://www.englishclub.com/tefl/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=3915