Different registers in language
When we communicate, we use different registers of language, which, to simplify matters, in the English teaching world, we class into formal, neutral and informal. Most English words are, in fact, neutral.But if we are writing or speaking to people we know well, we are most likely using contractions, slang and informal expressions as well. Formal English is for more serious communication, such as a writing a letter of application. In these cases, we generally use longer sentences and ((hopefully) correct grammar. A lot of our communication may not fit perfectly into these formal/informal pigeonholes, but we do have an idea of the register when we look at how the writing is formulated.
Formal versus informal
For non-native speakers of English, the difference between these two registers can be sometimes difficult to understand. Students have often asked me the past if a word is “formal” or “informal” when it is a neutral word that belongs in neither category. Generally it is the words and expressions around these neutral words that lend your correspondence a formal or informal style. A good English language teacher will always tell you if vocabulary is very formal, and therefore probably old-fashioned and/or used in very specific situations, or on the other hand, very informal, and therefore has no place in formal writing. Besides, a formal register uses grammatically correct sentences, and therefore tends to have longer sentences, and unlike an informal email, has no contractions, no text language like “C u l8ter”, and definitely no emoticons.
In English, a lot of the words that originated from Latin tend to be classed as more formal, which is useful for English language students whose first language is of Roman origin, as the word they need in English is frequently similar to the word they use in their own language, for example, ” I received your email.” and not ” I got your email “. When words began to be documented, the official language used was Latin, and its influence is still present today, even if we have anglicised the word.
The business world
The process of business writing has changed immensely since we started using email and the Internet for correspondence in the workplace. Whereas in previous centuries, formality was highly regarded, today the crucial issue is having the skills in order to express ideas clearly in a comprehensible way. Time is of the essence. But few people would disagree that a well-written business proposal looks much more trustworthy than one with grammatical mistakes. In the workplace, your emails and other written documents are an advertisement of your professional image. . This is key with clients and people you do not know well. In the business world, no-one is expecting you to be Charles Dickens or write an academic essay – in fact, this is not what they want at all. They need concise and easy to understand information.
Which register should I use ?
And if you are in doubt how to respond to an email, follow the style of the person who wrote to you. . If they say “speak to ya later ” then it is certain they are using an informal tone. This register is generally much easier to recognise and reproduce because it’s similar to the way we speak. If the writer says ” I look forward to seeing you at the meeting”, this should point you towards a more formal reply. If you are unsure about formal writing, there are tons of examples of formal letter writing on the net. Emails haven’t been around long enough to have the same amount of etiquette attached as letter writing, but on the whole, professional business emails should be written in a neutral tone, and grammar and spelling mistakes should be avoided. Save the emoticons and textspeak for your private messages.
So is formal writing still relevant ? Well, I would say that if you are thinking about old-fashioned expressions, such as ” I remain yours faithfully”, well, it is exactly that, an old-fashioned expression which is nowadays out of touch with the modern world. But there are certain circumstances when you may need to write very politely to someone in a superior position and/or you want to make the best impression. Formal writing, by which I mean, accurate grammar and spelling and the correct tone and format, is always going to create a positive impression.
One reply on “Does formal English matter anymore?”
Thank you for your post. I liked your distinction between the formal and informal. Language is always in a state of adaptation. Your comment about grammatical errors was also appreciated. While language may change, as with the advent of email, informality doesn’t equate to poor writing which must be avoided at all costs. Long live Fowler’s! For more on words, see https://thethinkingwasp.wordpress.com/