Formal And Informal Spoken Language Essay

Formal and informal English

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

© Tomasz P. Szynalski,

The most important piece of advice for an English learner is to get lots of input. But not all input is the same. There are, roughly speaking, two basic types of English input: formal and informal.

Formal English is used in “serious” texts and situations — for example, in official documents, books, news reports, articles, business letters or official speeches. Informal English is used in everyday conversations and in personal letters.

Here is an example of formal English that you might come across in a book:

As the price of five dollars was reasonable, I decided to make the purchase without further thought.

The same thought would be expressed quite differently in informal English. Here’s an actual example that I heard from a young American:

It was, like, five bucks, so I was like “okay”.

You need to know formal English because you want to be able to read a book, give a business presentation or write an official letter. You also need informal English because you want to be able to understand and communicate with English speakers in everyday situations.

Differences between formal and informal English

Formal EnglishInformal English
  • Used in official, literary, academic, etc. content.
  • Used in everyday, personal conversations.
  • Typically used in careful, edited writing — when the writer has a lot of time to polish his text. Formal English also occurs in speech, usually when the speaker is saying something that was prepared beforehand (for example, reading the news or delivering an official speech).
  • Typically used in “improvised” speech — when the speaker is speaking without preparation, as in a conversation (in real life or over the phone). Informal English also occurs in writing, usually whenever the writer is writing quickly and without editing (for example, in an Internet chatroom or in quick, personal e-mails).
  • Sentences are longer and more complicated, for example: Toyota’s US sales bounced back in March as substantial discounts helped to win back customers who had been shaken by the firm’s mass safety recalls.
  • Sentences are simpler and shorter, for example: Did you see Toyota’s sales figures? Looks like the discounts have actually worked.
  • The standard of correctness is higher. Some things are considered correct (or at least acceptable) in informal English, but wrong in formal English. For example:
    • I’ve made less mistakes. (formal: I’ve made fewer mistakes.)
    • She’s liking it. (formal: She likes it.)
    • I feel real tired. (formal: I feel really tired.)
    • You did good. (formal: You did well.)
Formal EnglishInformal English
  • Because informal English is “improvised”, it is sloppy. Speakers (and sometimes writers) often do the following:
    • Use “delaying expressions” to give themselves time: Well, I think they should have asked us first, you know?
    • Use “correcting expressions” to correct themselves: He’s not well. I mean, he’s not sick, but he’s very tired.
    • Use “qualifying expressions” to show that what they said is not exactly right: This whole blogging thing is getting kind of old.
  • Informal English contains useful “everyday phrases”, for example:
    • Here you are. There you go. (when giving something to someone)
    • Excuse me?, Come again? (to ask someone to repeat something)
    • What do you mean? (to ask for explanation)
    • So, you’re saying that...? (to ask for confirmation)
    • Exactly!, I couldn’t agree with you more. (to agree with someone)
    • By the way..., Anyway... (to change the topic)
    • See you.Take care. (to say goodbye)
  • A huge number of words and phrases are used mainly in formal English. For example: nevertheless, to disclose, to constitute, to undertake, daunting, impervious, anew, truly, solace, to enchant, frantically, sizeable, to clutch, heyday, as it happens, upsurge, retrieval
  • A huge number of words and phrases are used mainly in informal English. For example: dude, freaking, uh-huh, nope (= no), to puke, trashy, grownup, awesome, to chill out, stuff, hard-up, to tick somebody off, to sell like crazy.
  • Many (but not all) phrasal verbs are avoided.
  • Phrasal verbs are used frequently. For example, in informal situations, people usually say found out instead of discovered, came across instead of encountered and got away instead of escaped.
  • Words and phrases are sometimes pronounced in a shortened and simplified way, e.g. Lemme go!, I’m doin’ fine, Whassup?, Whatcha gonna do?

Where do I get formal and informal input?

Here is a handy chart that shows you what types of English (formal, informal or “in between”) you can get from different sources of input:

adjacency pairs – opening and closing rituals are done in such a way that one statement triggers a response; it is a question and answer style of dialogue; paratactic style of dialogue – conjunctions such as “and” link simple sentences together
  • they follow one another; are produced by different speakers; have       a logical connection; conform to a pattern.
  • Questions, answers, greetings and a command are all part of       adjacency pairs

Turn-taking also structures spoken discourse; see order of participation and overlaps etc (often rectified quickly)

Openings and closings: social equals often use a neutral starting point or opening in a conversation by talking about the weather

  • Vocatives help to personalize an encounter; social greetings; hospitality tokens (linguistic references to customary social acts… have a drink, can I get you something, do sit down; neutral topics or self- or other-related remarks. ; choice of cooperative and mutual topic

See Other Subsystems: lexicology/morphology; syntax and semantics

Characteristics of spoken informal texts:

  • Are interactive (the listener responds);
  • Consist of overlaps – overlaps where speakers are trying to get the floor are common in an average conversation. Sometimes one speaker thought it was his or her turn, but the speaker hadn’t finished and so they spoke over the top of each other. Often speakers have to compete for a turn in a speech encounter in which many participants are involved (such as a group of friends chatting in a pub); or a speaker may have misjudged the end of a turn (as when the speaker adds extra information ..) or one speaker who is dominant may insist on interrupting – one speaker challenges or disrupts
  • The more cooperative the speech, the quicker overlaps are resolve, with one participant ceasing to speak
  • Consist of ellipsis – (leaving out letters or words) speakers can point to things directly or can just leave them out of they are already obvious from the situation; sometimes in rapid speech, sounds are left out of words; sometimes speakers leave out words to be vague and evasive;
  • Use discourse particles: spoken interaction is more personal than writing and speakers continually refer to themselves and to their audience with special expressions; discourse markers – often evident in written language as well – ‘okay’, there’, ‘alright’, ‘tell you what’, come on; dead set; (intensifier)
  • May contain slang and colloquial language.

(The more formal the context – the less likely there is to be examples of hesitancy, slips of the tongue, simultaneous speech.)

Turn taking and topic management

We expect participants in a conversation to obey certain rules about how a conversation will run.

  • taking the floor
  • managing and holding the floor  (prosodic clues)
  • relinquishing the floor
  • use of adjacency pairs (orderly flow) (interview-style; question and answer)
  • overlapping
  • use of minimal response and backchanneling
  • questioning techniques – interrogative tags
  • prosodic clues

Turn- taking strategies: for conversations to be successful people need to take turns.  When people are talking socially and informally they will follow the in-group rules. People usually  give a signal that they intend to give someone else a turn. , eg. ‘so anyway’ or finally.

  • Managing topics is related to turn-taking.  All participants will try to take charge of the topic as the opportunity arises.
  • Topic loop involves returning to an earlier topic.  This involves the initiation of the topic, and topic changes. Much depends upon the gender, age, context of the discussion. Those in a more powerful situation often initiate the topic, esp. in a workplace setting.; often help to deal with a problem; reintroduce an earlier topic ; if a response is minimal or negative, a speaker might return to an earlier, safer topic of conversation to repair the damage to the cooperative interaction.
  • Topic shifts: those who initiate the topic are in charge of turn-taking – a role occupied by different participants; in informal conversations the topic often arises naturally or as a result of the exchange.
  • In informal contexts, there is often less structure; the topic moves in a more desultory or haphazard manner:  – these phrases are unlikely to take place in formal contexts such as a lecture or an intervie
  • End of a topic: linguistic signals: by the way,… incidentally, that reminds me, to change the subject ..   (cf formal contexts, adverbs such as “lastly” and non-finite clauses – to conclude)
  • New topics: as I was saying before, speaking of which, let’s talk about something else
  • Interruptions… where was I (after a digression)…
  • awareness of listener response: make repairs before communication breaks down.. .you know, you see, you understand… encourage listener to acknowledge that communication is effective. .. draw listeners into the conversation  – can you guess what happened, if you ask me, and you know what I said? Are you with me? Do you get what I mean? Okay? conversational routines
  • listening noises ;   interrogative tags;   cohesion: references.  59;   Coherence 60
  • Floor holding strategies
  • prosodic clues: other indications that people are signaling the      other’s turn such as modifying pitch, volume or speed of their speech; by      using continuing intonation to indicate that she hasn’t finished      speaking;– for turn taking may be rising and falling intonation; use of      vocatives to assign turns and the use of various questioning strategies –      follow up questions to allow a turn to continue …

Topic management (lexis) / turn-taking/ prosodics/ intonation

  • Think about the tone: enthusiastic, passionate, sentimental, dramatic, exasperated, frustrated, worried, seeking reassurance; or affirmation or expert knowledge
  • Friendly: candid, sincere, honest, frank, straightforward: friendly; amicable, amiable, affable, genial
  • Distance: respectful, courteous, cordial;

Unscripted, casual conversation between two or more familiar people: spontaneous; possibility of more ambiguity, especially for external listeners.

  • Often there is a great deal of shared knowledge between two people who know each other well and presumably have shared interests and passions
  • Some participants have animated facial expressions to show passion and enthusiasm; many are dramatic and have exaggerated expressions to stimulate interest in the topic of the conversation
  • If a telephone conversation: often fewer pauses; both want to convey information; there is often a purpose to the discussion; to impart information or to find out information
  • The topic management may be equally divided – both speakers introduce and develop the content; the conversation is cooperative.  Or one may be in charge of the conversation because of expert knowledge of the topic
  • Turn-taking: cooperative nature: and familiarity; The participants tend to avoid long utterances to mark their continued interest. The dialogue is fast-paced with minimal pauses to create interest and avoid social difficulties.
  • There are supportive minimal vocalisations, (yeah, mm and laughs) ; some mark points where the speakers talk at once. ; voiced hesitations (mm/ er or repetition of words) these allow speakers to pause without communication breaking down.
  • If cooperative, the speakers may stop to allow the other to complete the utterance.
  • Rising and falling intonations:  questioning, misunderstanding; surprise; disbelief; curiosity; shock; reprimand; correcting someone; uncertainty; sudden understanding.
  • Non-fluency features:  depending upon the degree of spontaneity, both speakers will often make false starts (…) or repeat words or phrases; use voiced hesitations ( er mm); leave utterances incomplete;  speak over the top of each other; and make their own repairs.
  • Radio/TV commentary : informal  – more fluent; scripted?

How informal language encourages intimacy, solidarity and equality

Spoken language may show close, casual social distance and an informal relationship between friends or people who are familiar with each other.  Non-fluency features are often attributed to inaccuracies associated with informal speec encounters; but may also be used consciously to control turn-taking and ensure that all participants are listening.

  • There will often be quite a lot of overlapping: people often give positive reinforcement and echo      each other’s words to show acknowledgement and the shared nature of the      topic being discussed. This often occurs due to the fast pace of the      dialogue and the supportive nature of the interaction;

Sometimes however, overlaps may be negative and may be regarded as takeovers or interruptions or arise because of the shared nature of the topic being discussed;

  • Reinforcement and encouragement: when someone nods her head and says mmm she is usually indicating that she is paying attention and encouraging the speaker to continue.
    • How we address other people is important and shows the degree of intimacy between people.
    • Opening and closing rituals are important to a casual conversation: if we know someone well we will greet them differently from those who we do not know. The context and function is important. We need to end conversations in a socially acceptable manner. If we know someone well, we might say, “Okay good to catch up. See you next time.”
  • There will often be minimal responses; these are cooperative noises (mmm, heah); this      refers to
  • one person encouraging the other to keep going with positive facial      expressions, nods that indicate they are listening , smiles, laughter, and      encouraging noises such as hmm, yeah, right and ooh.  This is also referred to as back channeling
  • because each one is encouraging the other to continue talking. Minimal responses generally show      support and encouragement; they provide feedback to the speaker  and show that the topic matter is familiar.
  • Voiced hesitations or filled pauses… mm.. er .. ah… um these help the speaker      maintain the floor while they think; prevents another speaker from having      a turn;
  • We tend to avoid confrontation in conversation and follow the maxims of conversation.
  • Choice of topics are important: they need to be appropriate to particular people.
  • Hedging expression: occur when we are not certain or want to hide a response.
  • Cultural variations also need to be taken into account when considering issues of solidarity and equality.
  • Alternatively we may use language to exclude others deliberately. Our friends would be upset if we walked past them without saying, Hi , hello/ good morning. We can also exclude others by using code words that only a small group of people understand.

Maintains positive face needs

  1. Silence can require repair: Pauses are usually kept to a minimum in speech; a long pause may cause embarrassment if it is seen as an indicator of failure
      • Participants to a discussion must show some sensitivity towards the needs of others. They need to know when to offer or withhold information, when to stay distanced or become involved. They need to show tolerance towards others, giving them space to rephrase and clarify utterances.
      • Even in casual conversions we need to be polite – to be considerate of others in society; to be perceptive and diplomatic; to save another’s face (public self-image); to avoid embarrassment
      • MCPC – 34 – middle class politeness criterion – language exchange between casual acquaintances of different sexes offers the most probably default conditions ..
      • it arises from conscious or unconscious self-censoring
      • Use of euphemisms in casual conversations to save face.
      • We tend to avoid taboo subjects and seek to protect the feelings of others.
      • Many people find abusive language unacceptable.
      • It is important to know the conversational rules being followed.

    Pauses are usually kept to a minimum in speech; a long pause may cause embarrassment if it is seen as an indicator of failure.


  1. Return to Summary Page: English Language Notes
  2. Return to Summary: Informal and Formal Language
  3. See Essay: the role of informal language
  4. Also see swearing

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