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Formal and Informal Style in English [infographic]

  • March 16, 2015
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In English, different situations call for different styles. While letters sent to a sibling are in an informal style, resumés require more formal English.

It is important to remember who you are addressing and what you are writing because this sets the tone. If writing to a Biology professor, the style will be formal. If the Biology professor is your brother, the tone can be more informal. The following are obvious examples of style difference that we can dissect later.

Dear Professor Carmichael,
I am writing to inform you of several discoveries made in our lab last week. We examined the paper you published last year and have taken your studies of the emotional states of flatworms in varying environments to a new level. We would be honored to share our data with you and would like to invite you to our lab. One of our interns mentioned that you will be at North Campus this weekend; please contact us if you might be able to visit.
—- Dr. Norbert Funkleberg

I just wanted to let you know that Myrtle and I have come up with a solution to your chili problem. We cooked up several batches and taste-tested each. We think you are using too much cumin, to start. You may also need to use more cayenne and cook your beans longer. In the end, we hit on 2 different recipes and we’d like you to stop by our place this weekend to taste them. Aunt Ziggy said you’ll be in our neck of the woods Saturday, so come by when it’s convenient. Phone if you can.
—- Cousin Bert

Formal and Informal Style - Web

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There is nothing wrong with Cousin Bert’s letter to Bubba; it is merely written in an informal tone. A few guidelines will help to define the two styles.

1. No Colloquialisms
This will include slang, idioms or other informal bits that frequently occur in spoken English. Bert was informal with his very first phrase: “I just wanted to let you know.” Dr. Funkleberg was “writing to inform” the professor. “Our place” is also incredibly informal, as is “hit on.” Later in the letter, Bert uses the old and worn-out idiom “our neck of the woods,” which is fine among friends but awful in formal writing. Emoticons and such are also never used in formal writing. 🙂

2. No Imperatives
Imperatives are those little words and phrases that can sound bossy. Dr. Funkleberg has great respect for the professor and would never tell him to “come by” or “phone.” Instead, he presents an invitation (and uses “please”).

3. No Contractions
In formal writing, contractions are not used. As opposed to “I’m” and “we’d be,” Dr. Funkleberg takes the extra time to type out “I am writing” and “we would be.” Cousin Bert uses “we’d,” “you’ll” and “it’s” to save some time. Write everything out, including words like t.v.: television.

4. Avoid Short, Choppy Sentences
Formal writing should feel more respectful and more intellectual, and it should seem as if more time went into writing it. There should be a nice flow and organization of ideas instead of a blurt of information. Bert’s letter has an almost jarring feel.

5. Do Not Directly Address the Reader
Because the doctor is writing to a specific person, he is excused from this guideline, but formal writing with a broader audience should be in third person. Do not use pronouns such as “you” or “I.”

6. Mind Your Spelling/Punctuation/Grammar
Especially when writing resumés, these errors will immediately turn the reader off, and in other types of writing, the author’s authority on the subject might be questioned.

Now that you know how, here are some suggestions on when to use formal English.

1. Resumés and any sort of application
2. Business reports and anything professional or work-related
3. Advertising
4. Cold communication (writing to strangers)
5. Academic writing
6. Technical and scientific writing

When in doubt, always choose a more formal tone. Are there any writing situations you are unsure of?

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