BLP A-Z of Learning English: «F» for «Formal vs Informal English»
Karen Thorley 24/04/2020
The English language can be more or less formal, depending on the words and sentence constructions that you use:
English often has 2 or more words for one meaning, and very often this division is between Latin-based words and Germanic/Nordic based words.
This is because the Romans educated the English in Latin through their church-based schools, so under the Roman-influence education was mainly available for the wealthy, religious or nobles, so was associated with the upper end of society.
Later on, this romance-language influence was consolidated through the use of French, which was used for legal, commercial and diplomatic relations between France and England.
As a result, “old” English, which was more Nordic/Germanic based, continued to be used by the uneducated, working classes, especially in the rural, non-Roman areas like the east coast and some northern areas including Scotland. (see graph from wikipedia on how English is made up of other languages)
So now, let’s fast-forward to modern times; how has language evolved?
Well, both sides continued to be used and in the end the Nordic/Germanic influence in English is now associated more with the day-to-day, informal, spoken language whilst the Latin-based part of English is used in more formal situations and often in writing.
This means that speakers of Latin-based, romance languages are fine with formal language, however, even if the language is correct, they can sound too polite or too formal and distant, even unfriendly, in everyday situations. Whereas, on the other hand, the Germanic/Nordic speakers are fine with the more informal, everyday language, but can sound too informal and “over-friendly” when the occasion requires more formality. We call this register
So, as a learner of English for different situations, you really need to be able to be able to use each register, depending on the needs of each situation
Generally speaking, most phrasal verbs (which come from German) have a “Latin” equivalent:
Also shorter words often have a longer, Latin equivalent:
And the same goes for modal verbs – all English auxiliaries come from German and are shorter than their Latin equivalents):
In the past as well:
Then we can extend this whole idea to shorter and longer sentence structures.
Generally speaking, the longer the sentence, the more formal it is (also it usually coincides with Latin based language)
Sometimes we miss pronouns out in informal language:
Also, again in line with shortness and brevity: we use contractions in informal writing whereas we do not contract in formal writing:
Using the passive voice (as it’s more neutral) instead of active:
Using conditionals instead of indicatives makes language more formal:
Once you are able to identify which register you need to use, the rest is a question of practice.
If anyone would like to practice this, we can help you.
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