All VCE English Language students must complete Unit 3 AOS 1 & Unit 3 AOS 2 of the course before successfully moving onto Unit 4. Today, I will help you demystify the differences between informal and formal language, because Unit 3 is just that: formal and informal language.
Having tutored many students myself, I have noticed an inherent disconnect between students’ knowledge and their actual understanding. Yes, students can LEARN the metalanguage for informal and formal language, but that doesn’t mean you actually UNDERSTAND it at the conceptual level. I strongly urge all students to think about these questions and aim to do your own research independent of what your teacher tells you. This is what will allow you to get an amazing mark in English Language – independent and unique thinking.
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Let’s first look at a few neat comparison pictures (this will help you first understand what informal and formal language looks like):
So, based on the pictures above, what makes the left side formal and the right side informal? Let’s delve into it.
- You’ll notice ‘smart people words’ in the formal column. But surely you can’t say ‘smart people words’ in a SAC? In this case, these lexemes are almost always of French and Latin origin/etymology. Remember the French invasion of English in 1066? When the French invaded, they brought in over 10,000 words of which 7,500 exist today (or thereabouts). During this era, the upper class spoke French, while the lower class spoke Old English (of Germanic origins), and this led to many lexemes of French origin being held in higher regard in comparison to their Germanic equivalents. For example, this can be seen in the couplet ‘to begin’ vs ‘to commence’. Which sounds formal? Of course ‘commence’ does, but ‘begin’ is used more frequently. Formal language can sometimes sound pompous (i.e. up yourself), but it is useful in reflecting authority, precision of meaning and seriousness.
- This leads me to my next point: informal. One common observation in the right hand column is that many of the sentences are ‘cut down’ and even the words too. When sentences are incomplete, this is officially known as syntactic ellipsis. Ellipsis is a very common feature of informal language, and oftentimes is used for purposes of efficiency in terms of saving time. Think of a Facebook conversation or even an everyday conversation with friends. You’ll try your best to shorten down everything without affecting the intended meaning. Another form of efficiency is through what is known as phonological elision. As can be seen in the second picture above, the lexeme ‘you’ has been elided (cut down) to ‘ya’ for purposes of saving time.
- Formal language can often be perceived at times as less imposing on someone’s freedom (think of negative face needs) due to the sentence structure being impersonal. For example, think of the sentence “We demand that you pay this bill now” in comparison to “This bill should be paid and it is requested that this be done as soon as practicable”. Which one sounds more formal? The second example definitely does. You’ll notice two observations in the second example:
- “This bill should be paid” is an example of an agentless passive voice and depersonalises the text by omitting the agent (the person paying). You’ll find many companies employ this technique to be less forceful and therefore attend to the other person’s negative face needs. Informal language can often be more direct, emotional and forceful (but not always).
- “It is requested that you…” is an example of a lexeme that has more positive connotation (request). Which sounds more forceful – request or demand?
- Informal language is more intimate and social. Thinking of slang terms or even colloquial phrases such as ‘What’s up?’ as shown in the picture above. It allows the speaker or author to be perceived as friendlier, more casual and relatable. Let me know the next time you say to your friend ‘How do you do?’ and watch for their reaction. It will be one of oddity but also one of social distance.
- Similar to intimacy and social connection, informal language allows a speaker to reflect their identity, whether it be cultural or social. For example, the Australia colloquial phrase ‘how are ya going mate?’ is a perfect example to allow a speaker to forge cultural solidarity with their interlocutor (hearer).
Generally speaking, remember this rule:
FORMAL = IMPERSONAL, DISTANT & UNAMBIGUOUS
INFORMAL = PERSONAL, INTIMATE AND CAN BE AMBIGIOUS
Is this even useful for the real world?
100% yes! You’ll need to know when it’s appropriate to use informal language and formal language, and in which context to a particular audience. Think of a job application – if you use informal language too sparingly, then you’ll be perceived as unprofessional, unreliable and even lacking the ability to pay attention to detail (of which employers really do value).
Real life case study: Please have a look at my workshop landing page here: https://www.learnmate.com.au/workshops/english-language/
After reading through my workshop page, you’ll notice the register is a mix of both informal and formal language. Was this a conscious decision? Definitely. Why you ask?
- I wanted to relate to potential attendees, so I would employ informal language to reflect enthusiasm and expected engagement at the lecture
- However, I also had to use formal language to reflect professionalism, authority and credibility to my intended audience (students).
So, there you have it guys! These are some of the main differences between informal and formal language! I sincerely hope this helps. I’d also like to mention, however, that this is by no means complete, so please see my other articles on formal and informal language.
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