Formal Language 1

What are the differences between these two dialogues?

Case 1 

A: Hi, Ben. I’m calling from Fast Travels about your recent job application. I’m happy to tell you that we would very much like you to accept this job. 

B: Thank you so much. That’s excellent news.  

A: The person you are replacing will finish on the 9th of December, so when do you think could start with us?

B: I will need to find out from my HR department when they can let me go. But looking at my work schedule for next month, I’ve got a project reaching completion so I might have to put off my start date at Fast Travels till mid-December. I’m really sorry about this. 

A: No problem. Just let us know when you can join us and we’ll get everything set up on our end to welcome you onto our team.

B: Thanks for understanding. I’ll try my best to leave by the 15th December.

Case 2

A: Hello, Benjamin. I’m telephoning from Fast Travels with regards to your recent job application. I am pleased to inform you that we would definitely relish it if you accept this job. 

B: Thank you very much. That news is excellent indeed. 

A: The person whom you are replacing will terminate her services on the 9th of December, and hence when do you think you could commence with us?

B: I would need to discover from my HR department when they might be able to release me. However, examining my work schedule for the coming month, I have a project reaching completion and therefore, I might be obligated to postpone my commencement date at Fast Travels until the middle of December. I sincerely apologise for this.

A: My pleasure. If you could simply inform us when you could join us, we will have everything established in our department to welcome you onto our team.

B: Thank you for your sympathetic awareness. I’ll endeavor to leave by the 15th December.

Formal Language 2  

Some of you might say that Case 1 sounds like a normal telephone conversation, where someone from the HR department of Fast Travels is offering a job to someone of interest to the company, while Case 2 is just a weird reproduction of the same conversation, perhaps, if the conversation in Case 1 took place on an alien planet. Or a more likely scenario is that the conversation had taken place in a foreign language, been transcribed and put through Google translate. 

But sadly, Case 2 is simply a ‘formalised’ version of Case 1, with supposedly what has been labeled as ‘informal’ words replaced with ‘formal’ ones. With the help of some well-known EFL coursebooks and websites, I was informed that a conversation between a job applicant and the head of a HR department ought to be a formal one because of the power difference and the fact that the interlocutors do not really know each other well.

To help me find the ‘correct register’ for this conversation, I flicked through a few coursebooks and did a Google search, and very easily found tables that helped me to convert the supposedly inappropriately informal conversation in Case 1 to the formal conversation in Case 2.

NOTE:  In case the preceding tone of irony has not been understood, here is a clarification. I DO NOT in any way endorse the contents of the following table and these examples are not my own but a collection of what I have seen both in coursebooks and on TEFL websites.

Informal Formal
to tell to inform
very much definitely
The person you are replacing The person whom you are replacing
to finish to terminate
so hence/therefore
to start to commence
to find out to discover
can might
to let go to release
but however
to look at to examine
I’ve I have
to put off to postpone
I’m sorry I apologise
No problem My pleasure/Thank you
to let someone know to inform someone
to set up to establish
to try to endeavor

Formal Language 3  

It has become commonplace in TEFL materials and resources to label individual lexical items and syntactical usage simply as formal or informal. 

I recently observed a class where a teacher was teaching a list of linking words with the function of addition. As he reeled off linking words like ‘nevertheless’, ‘moreover’, ‘as well’, ‘also’, ‘on top of that’, a student suggested ‘and’. He quickly dismissed the student by saying, “Yeah, but ‘and’ is informal, isn’t it? And we don’t want to be using informal words, do we?”

There are three major issues I had with his reply. First of all, ‘and’ is hardly an informal linking word. It is a commonly used conjunction in both written and spoken genres and ranks fifth position in the Oxford English Corpus list of most common English words. Just because it is common does not mean it is informal. 

Secondly, there is this prevalent feeling among English teachers and linguistic pedants that informal language equals bad language and should be avoided if one wants to sound educated. One TEFL tweeter wrote, “Avoid using ‘guess’ for ‘think’ or ‘suppose’. It’s better to write or say, ‘I think I’ll go with you.’”

But most importantly, the biggest source of irritation for me is the assumption by many teachers, TEFL material writers and editors, that language can be easily categorised into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, and their usage can easily be defined by the just-as-easily-categorisable relationships that we have.

Formal Language 4

I recently spotted this question in a TEFL coursebook:

Which of these people would you use informal language with? And which of these people would you use formal language with?

your teacher         your classmates          your boss  

your parents         your friends                your colleagues

On a TEFL website, I spotted this statement:

 Informal English: We use it with friends, children and relatives. 

Clearly, many seem to allocate informal versus formal language usage according to the person we are speaking to and the relationship we have with them. 

But surely the relationships we have with different people are fluid and dynamic, and change and evolve depending on the situations we are in and the conversations we have. After all, the language I might use with the boss when he praises me in front of clients might be very different from the language I use with the boss when he praises me over a drink in the pub.

Formal Language 5

And to simply say 'turn around' is informal and 'rotate' is formal is completely missing the point. 

You wouldn't ask someone to rotate their body because you have a more formal relationship with them. You might however use ‘rotate’ in academic writing or to describe the fixing of a sink in technical terms. Just because a plumber says “You have to rotate the screw clockwise” to his colleague does not mean the relationship is more formal than a marketing executive saying to his boss, “If you turn around, you will see a mockup of the poster ad.”

While it might be easier to place all words of Latin origins under the ‘formal’ category (e.g. rotate, discover, examine, indicate) and words of Germanic/Anglosaxon origins under the ‘informal’ category (e.g. turn, find, look, show, put), the fact of the matter is it really depends on the discourse of that particular community of practice that you are dealing with.

The discourse of the plumbing community and ‘plumbing talk’ involves the use of the word ‘rotate’ when talking about machinery and its smaller parts. The discourse of the marketing department might involve using compound nouns like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘customer satisfaction’. The discourse of the police department (according to police dramas) might use collocations like ‘ascertain the facts’ and ‘interrogate the suspect’. And the discourse of a company meeting might see phrases like ‘to kick off the meeting’, ‘to give her the green light/to give her the go ahead’ and ‘Let’s wrap this up’.  

Formal Language 6 It would be terribly misguided to simply assume that some of these phrases are less formal than others because they make use of contractions (e.g. I’ve, you’re, can’t, haven’t) or phrasal verbs (e.g. switch off, look after, figure out, look forward to…) or more common words like ‘and’.

Addressing appropriate language usage isn’t about being able to put expressions into formal and informal categories. It’s about getting to know the discourse of different communities of practice, noticing the genre and register that certain expressions or phrases connote, and understanding how some words go well together while other combinations might be awkward and strange.

But sometimes our desperation to categorise things into neat categories can blind us to the obvious. It tickled me to read a tweet by a TEFL teacher that read, “‘I can’t stand her!’ is colloquial English, “I can’t tolerate her!’ is formal English”.

Arguably, the situation in which you would say ‘I can’t stand her!’ or ‘I can’t tolerate her!’ (note the exclamation marks) is an emotive one - one where you would be sharing a negative emotion about another person. Regardless of the potential nuances of formality you might believe the word ‘tolerate’ gives to your sentence, you are still going to come across an angry and irate grouch.

Or should I say a peevish and acrimonious curmudgeon?


Formal Language 7



Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.


Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.  

She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite