By Geraldine Woods

When you’re listening or reading, you probably note the difference between formal and informal language constantly — maybe unconsciously. Knowing levels of language, however, isn’t enough. You also need to decide what level of formality to employ when you’re speaking and writing. Before you choose, consider these factors:

  • Your audience. If your message is going to a person with more power or higher status than you (an employee writing to a boss or a student to a teacher, for example), you should probably be more formal. If you’re speaking or writing to someone with less power or lower status than you, conversational English is fine. In a higher-to-lower situation, however, the person with more authority may wish to employ formal English in order to serve as a role model or to establish a professional atmosphere. When you’re dealing with peers, conversational English is a good bet. Only your closest friends rate — and understand — friendspeak.
  • The situation. At the company picnic or in the cafeteria, most people opt for less formal speech. Similarly, at get-togethers with family and friends, formal language may sound stiff and unfriendly. When you’re in an official meeting with a client or teacher, however, formal English is safer.
  • The format. When you’re speaking you have more leeway than when you’re writing. Why? Unless you’re reading prepared remarks, you probably can’t produce perfect sentences. Not many people can! The writing in texts, tweets, and instant messages tends to be in conversational English or, with your buddies, in friendspeak. Exceptions occur, though. A text to a client should be more formal than one to a friend, and journalists or officials often tweet in formal English. Email can go either way. Because it’s fast, the dropped or shortened forms of conversational English are generally acceptable, but if you think the reader expects you to honor tradition (the written equivalent of a curtsy or a hat-tip), go for formal English. Always employ formal English for business letters, school reports, and similar paper-based communication.

Listen to those around you or read others’ work that appears in the same context you’re navigating. Unless you want to stand out, aim for the same level of formality you hear or see.

Think about the audience, situation, and format. In the following example, decide whether the writing or speech is appropriate or inappropriate.

Text from a department head to the CEO requesting a salary increase:

greenlight $20K or I walk

Inappropriate. Think about the power ladder here. The CEO is on the top rung, and the department head somewhere farther down. Even though texts tend to be informal, this one is about money. When you ask for money, be polite! To be polite in Grammarland is to use formal, correct language. The department head should have written something like “If you cannot raise my salary by $20,000, I will seek employment elsewhere.”

Practice questions

Think about the audience, situation, and format. In the following two questions, decide whether the writing or speech is appropriate or inappropriate.

  1. Cover letter from a job applicant to a potential employer, a tech start-up: Attached please find my resume, pursuant to your advertisement of July 15th.
  2. Tweet from the president to the members of the local garden association: Meeting tonight at 8 p.m. #springplanting

Answers to practice questions

  1. Inappropriate. Surprised? Job applicants should be formal, but they should also avoid outdated expressions and overly stuffy language, especially for a tech start-up where innovation and rule-breaking are valued. “Attached please find” should be “Attached is.” “Pursuant to” would be better as “in response to.”
  2. Appropriate. Tweets may have no more than 280 characters, so the number of spaces, letters, and symbols can’t go above that number. Dropping words is fine in this format, as is directing people who are interested in attending the meeting to other tweets about spring planting.