The formality of language is called register. You use different registers depending on who you are speaking to. For example, you speak to your boss differently to the way you speak to your friends. You speak to your children differently to the way you speak to your grandparents.
You adapt your register to suit the situation you are in and do so without really thinking too hard about it. The activities below will help you to do this more deliberately and consciously.
Activity 14 Formal or informal?
Take a few minutes to think about the people you speak to every day. Do you think you speak to them formally or informally?
- Formal: colleagues, boss, teacher, grandparents.
- Informal: pets, partner, siblings, friends.
Do you agree with these suggestions?
It is useful to think about the difference between spoken and written English. Due to the changes in the way people communicate in everyday life, the world is generally becoming more informal.
Spoken language is generally more flexible and informal than written language. However, texts, tweets and other posts often do not follow the old rules and therefore written language is becoming less formal. For example, it is getting more and more common to hear people say ’OMG’ or ’LOL’ rather than the actual words.
Formal spoken language is different from formal written language. In most situations that require formal speaking, if you spoke in exactly the same way as a formal letter is written, it would appear strange. In most cases it would sound too formal.
There are still times when you need to speak more formally than you do with friends or family. A typical example is when you talk to someone you do not know – you would not be informal and risk being rude. Phone conversations in a workplace are often more formal than face-to-face conversations. When you answer the phone you do not know who you will be speaking to so you start by being formal and polite.