When to use formal or informal English is a question that well educated native English speakers rarely think about, because they use the preferred form instinctively. However to a person who is attempting to learn this confusing language this is a most confusing question. In this short column I will attempt to; answer some of your questions, and lay to rest some of your fears.
At its most basic level, informal English is the day to day spoken language, and formal English is the written form especially in business and academic settings or when a formal letter is required.
In informal spoken English many of the rules of grammar are relaxed, and some are even ignored, which makes learning the language even more confusing to students, especially adults. While in formal English the rules of grammar should be rigidly abided by in most cases.
So, what does all this mean? If speaking to a friend of about the same age and social status as you, then informal English is perfectly acceptable, but if speaking to a person who is older, or who is in a much higher social standing than you are, you should use a more formal spoken English. Some examples are:
- To a friend it is acceptable to say, “Hey Jack, how’re you doing buddy?”
- To a Governor you would say, “Good afternoon Governor, how are you doing today?”
- To your girlfriend, “Do you want to grab a bite to eat? I need to ask you something.”
- To your girlfriend’s father, “Mr. Jones, would you care to have dinner with me tonight? I would like to talk to you about your daughter, and myself.”
- To a coworker, “ Morning Joe.”
- To your boss or a client, “ Good morning, Mr. Smith or Good morning, sir.”
- To a friend, “Man! Was that movie really cool or what, we need to see it again!”
- To your drama professor, “Professor Bogart, the motion picture which you assigned us to watch was one of the most impressive that I have ever seen. In fact, I am going to view it again tonight!
Always use formal English when writing; a business letter, an essay, or other papers for work, school or publication.
You can use informal English when writing a letter to a close friend or a relative, when quoting informal usage, or in a novel or script, etc. Otherwise it is much less risky to use the formal form, especially if you have any doubts about the acceptability of the informal form, or if you need to be very clear or specific. Remember that you will never look or sound foolish by using proper grammar.