Formal versus informal language

Lisa Tran

January 3, 2016

English & EAL

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Most assessments require you to write essays using formal language. In English writing, there are two main styles of writing – formal and informal. The primary purpose of formal language is to achieve sophistication and clarity. Although the difference between the two styles is relatively straightforward, we’ll point out some common examples to just to make sure that you don’t slip and make an unnecessary mistake. Consider these two examples:

Example 1 : We cordially invite you to the Year 12 formal.

Example 2 : Hey buddy! Wanna go to the dance?

It is clear that example 1 is formal while example 2 is informal. The vocabulary, tone, and syntax are all things that change depending on the style you wish to adopt. Informal language isn’t always a ‘taboo’ though. Creative pieces and persuasive pieces can be written informally, for example, if it is a personal diary or an advertisement respectively. If you’re unsure, the easiest way to separate the two is to question whether or not you would say the phrase in real-life conversations. If it’s a yes, then it’s most likely informal language. Below are some more specific examples of the differences between formal and informal writing:

Formal: Avoids using colloquial words/phrases

Informal: May use colloquial words/phrases


Formal: Avoids contractions (write out full words – was not, did not, had not etc.)

Informal: May use contractions (wasn’t, didn’t, hadn’t etc.)


Formal: Usually written in third person (Sharon, Ben, they, them etc.)

Informal: May use first (I, me etc.), second (he, she etc.) or third person (as above).


Formal: Specific words (such as, large, items, etc.)

Informal: Imprecise words (like, big, things, etc.)


Formal: Avoids cliches (many, etc.)

Informal: May use cliches (loads of, etc.)


Formal: Avoids addressing readers using second person pronouns (the readers, an individual, one’s etc.)

Informal: May address readers using second person pronouns (you, your, etc.)


Formal: Avoids using abbreviated words (write in full – photograph, television, etc.)

Informal: May use abbreviated words (photo, TV, etc.)


Formal: Avoids imperative voice (please refer to…etc.)

Informal: May use imperative voice (remember to…etc.)


Formal: May use passive voice (it has been noted that…etc.)

Informal: May use active voice (we note that…etc.)


Formal: May use longer and more complex sentences.

Informal: May use short and simple sentences.

When writing essays ensure that you stick to one or the other. Mixing the two ways of writing will negatively impact the readability of your essay, and also the assessor’s reflection of the writer.

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