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Formal and Informal Style

Whether you use formal or informal style in writing will depend on the assignment itself, its subject, purpose, and audience.

Formal language is characterized by the use of standard English, more complex sentence structures, infrequent use of personal pronouns, and lack of colloquial or slang terms.

Informal language allows the use of nonstandard English forms, colloquial vocabulary and typically shorter sentence structures.

The choice of formal or informal style will affect the following areas:

  • standard or nonstandard English
  • choice of vocabulary
  • use of contractions
  • use of pronouns

Rule to Remember

Formal style affects the form of English, the choice of vocabulary, and the use of contractions and pronouns.

Standard or Nonstandard English

Standard English is the language used in professional and business communication. It is the form of English that follows the formal rules of the language.

Nonstandard English uses regional or social language variations. Nonstandard English should only be used when there is a purpose for it in writing. For example, it can be used in a narrative to describe a person with a specific regional dialect. Otherwise, the standard form of English should be used.

Choice of Vocabulary

Vocabulary needs to be adjusted depending on the level of formality of any written work.

Consider the following words: investigate, examine, check out. Each of them has a different level of formality. While check out can be used in informal writing and speech, using it in a formal research paper would not be appropriate.

Informal The study checked out the health effects of passive smoking.
Formal The study examined the health effects of passive smoking.

Rule to Remember

Use more formal vocabulary and avoid the use of contractions in formal writing.

Sometimes the whole sentence needs to be rephrased:

Informal This experiment worked out just fine.
Formal This experiment was successful.

Contractions are more casual, and if you are striving for more formal style, they should not be used. Contractions in negative sentences should be especially avoided since they are easy to miss.

Informal The outcomes of the study haven't been documented yet.
Formal The outcomes of the study have not been documented yet.

The Use of Pronouns

Formal language tends to be impersonal and precise. The use of pronouns, therefore, is restricted. In formal writing, when addressing the audience, you may use the passive voice or an adverbial clause in place of the personal pronoun:

Less formal As you examine the health effects of ...
More formal When examining the health effects of ...

Rule to Remember

Restrict the use of personal pronouns in formal writing.

The writer's presence, signaled by the use of the personal pronoun I, or we (if there are several authors), can also make writing more informal and less credible.

Less formal I believe the health effects of ...
More formal It is believed that the health effects of ...

The second sentence is more formal and can be perceived by the audience to be more credible.


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