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English: skills for learning
English: skills for learning

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2.1 Distinguishing between formal and informal texts

You will now read and compare three business studies texts. This comparison will allow you to identify some of the characteristics of formal and informal university texts.

Activity 4

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Skim read Texts 1, 2 and 3. You should just get the gist of these texts and look at their style, so it is not necessary to understand every word or understand their content in any depth. When you have finished, complete the tasks that follow.

Text 1

The cause of (dis)satisfaction for an individual at work may be the result of one or many factors. It is likely that our satisfaction within work is both implicit (inside ourselves and difficult to articulate) and relative to our circumstances at any particular time; it is also likely to be affected by our previous jobs. We are likely to enjoy some aspects of our work but not others. There is no one theory that can explain job satisfaction, but there are some models and frameworks that can help us think about it. This is difficult for those individuals (managers and HRM people) who are responsible for both the productivity and the psychological well-being of people within a business.

(Source: Preston, 2012)

Text 2

Studies in organizational behavior support the position that organizational structure affects performance, employee satisfaction, and job related stress. Kerr et al. (1974) observed that rule oriented structure adversely affects employee satisfaction but improves productivity. In general, it has been observed that high autonomy and broad job scope are directly related to employees’ intrinsic job satisfaction (Fleishman, 1973; House, 1971; Hunt and Liebscher, 1973). Contradicting the mainstream trend in literature, Zeist (1983) reported a greater degree of job satisfaction in more highly structured roles since role clarity reduced anxiety and served as a basis for reward seeking activities. The size of the organization is also a factor in determining employee satisfaction. Porter and Lawler (1964) observed that although satisfaction is greater in relatively flat organizations with 5,000 or fewer employees, satisfaction was also found to be greater in large organizations with more than 5,000 employees and many hierarchical levels. Senatra (1980) observed significant relationships between organizational climate, role perceptions, job related tension, satisfaction, and propensity to leave.

(Source: Zanzo, 1995, p. 2)

Text 3

I started this job a year ago. There are very strict rules and I can’t make any decisions. I like to do my job well and come up with lots of ideas but my boss only cares to check how well or badly I do routine jobs.

He doesn’t care about anything other than me doing my work fast and on demand, but I would really like to make my own decisions and get involved in different tasks and in different departments. I think that there are more opportunities and staff should be more satisfied in big companies like ours. But at the end of the day, because of the way I am managed, I don’t really enjoy what I do at work.

I have noticed that there isn’t much to be learnt from the environment I am working in. More often than not I’m nervous about failing my tasks and everything that goes on at the office and so, like many others in this department, I’m frustrated with my surroundings.

So it’s obvious that many of us want to quit.

(Source: Kerr, R. and Peters, H., 2010, English Communication Skills for Global Managers, Milton Keynes, The Open University)

Task 1

Decide which of the three texts is:

  • informal reflection
  • b.a formal paragraph taken from first year Open University (OU) teaching materials
  • c.a very formal journal article.
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(Task 1)

  • a.Text 3. This is an informal text in which a student reflects on their personal experiences at work. The student might have posted it in an online forum  as part of a discussion with fellow students.

  • b.Text 1. This is a more formal text taken from Open University Business Studies teaching materials.

  • c.Text 2. This is a very formal text taken from a specialist journal article. Students may study this type of text if they conduct independent research at the end of their second or third year.

Task 2

What features of each text helped you decide which texts were more formal than others? For example, look at the way they are organised and which kind of words they use.

Write some notes in the box below before comparing your answer to mine.

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(Task 2)

In Text 3, the student discusses their own personal experiences and feelings. For this reason, ‘I’ is used throughout. The language used includes idioms, such as ‘at the end of the day’, and familiar expressions such as ‘big companies’ and ‘my boss’. This text is informally organised as it contains several short paragraphs, each dealing with several issues. Sentences are only sometimes linked using informal linking words such as ‘but’ and ‘so’.

Text 1 is written by an OU academic writer who aims to teach students through a written text. The author uses informal words such as ‘we’ as they are talking to the students, as well as more formal terms such as ‘factors’, ‘implicit’ and ‘psychological’. The definition of ‘implicit’ is provided in brackets to help the students understand. The text is presented as a paragraph that starts with an effective topic sentence and ideas are clearly linked.

Text 2 is a very formal text written by a researcher who writes for those who study or are doing research on the topic. The text reports information from research and contains a great deal of formal and specialist language. Specialist language includes ‘rule oriented structure’ and ‘job related tension’. The text starts with a clear topic sentence, which is followed by sentences that illustrate its main point.


The style of university texts may vary depending on their authors, the purpose for writing and the intended readers. Students’ writing can not only take the form of informal reflections shared in informal forum discussions but also very formally organised texts. The style of Open University study materials is formal but, particularly in the first year, the technical words are defined. Their authors tend to use a friendly tone and talk directly to the students.

Student essays should follow the style adopted in the essay you read in Week 4. This essay uses a formal structure and the academic and specialist vocabulary displayed in Texts 1 and 2. It does not, however, use the informal language you noticed in Text 3 nor the friendly tone achieved by the OU materials through the use of ‘we’ and ‘our’.

Open University students gradually learn to understand and use academic language and are helped in this by their tutors. As they progress with their studies, students are usually ready and interested in more complex readings that contain a great deal of more formal and technical language.