By Geraldine Woods

Proper English is important. The only problem with that statement is the definition of “proper.” Language has many levels of formality, all of which are “proper” at times and completely unsuitable at others. Many gradations of formality exist, but to make things easier, divide English into three large categories: “friendspeak” (the most casual), “conversational” (one step up), and “formal” (the equivalent of wearing your best business attire). Take a look at these examples:

c u in 10 (friendspeak)

There in ten minutes. (conversational)

I will arrive in ten minutes. (formal)

All three statements say the same thing in very different ways. Here’s the deal:

  • Friendspeak breaks some rules of formal English on purpose, to show that people are comfortable with each other. Friendspeak shortens or drops words and often includes slang and references that only close friends understand. No one has to teach you this level of English. You learn it from your pals, or you create it yourself and teach it to your buddies.
  • Conversational English sounds relaxed, but not too relaxed. It’s the language equivalent of jeans and a T-shirt. Conversational English is filled with contractions (I’m instead of I am, would’ve instead of would have, and so forth). Not many abbreviations appear in conversational English, but you may confidently include those that are well established and widely understood (etc., a.m., p.m., and the like). You may also see acronyms, which pluck the first letter from each word of a name (NATO for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or AIDS for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, for example). Conversational English may drop some words and break a few rules. The example sentence for conversational English at the beginning of this article, for instance, has no subject or verb, a giant no-no in formal writing but perfectly acceptable at this level of language.
  • Formal English is the pickiest location in Grammarland. When you speak or write in formal English, you follow every rule (including some you never heard of), avoid slang and abbreviations, and trot out your best vocabulary.

Think about your audience when you’re selecting friendspeak, conversational English, or formal English. What impression are you trying to give? Let your goals guide you. Also consider the situation. At work you may rely on conversational English when you run into your boss at the coffee machine, but not when you’re submitting a quarterly report. At school, choosing conversational English is okay for a teacher-student chat in the cafeteria, but not for homework. More on situation and language appears in the next section, “Matching Message to Situation.”

Can you identify levels of formality? Check out this example:

EXAMPLE: Place these expressions in order of formality, from the most formal to the least. Note: Two expressions may tie. For example, your answer may be A, B and C — in which case expression A is the most formal and expressions B and C are on the same, more casual level.

A. sketchy block

B. That is a dangerous neighborhood.

C. Where gangs rule.

ANSWER: B, C, A. Expression B is the most formal because it follows all the conventions of English. Every word is in the dictionary, and the sentence is complete. Expression C, on the other hand, is an incomplete sentence and is therefore less formal. Also, in Expression C the verb rule has an unusual meaning. Your readers or listeners probably understand that gangs aren’t official authorities but instead wield a lot of unofficial power. The statement is more conversational than formal. Expression A employs slang (sketchy means “slightly dangerous”), so it’s closer to friendspeak than to formal English.