Formal Language: Definitions & Example (2023)

Formal language is commonly used in work-related correspondence and other official forms of communication. You might also use formal language if you want to make a good impression.

Formal language definition

Formal language is defined as a style of speech and writing used when addressing someone we don't know well, or someone we respect.

An example of formal language in an email would sound like this:

Dear Mr Smith,

I hope you are doing well.

I would like to invite you to our annual Ancient History conference. The conference will take place between April 15th and April 20th in our brand new facility.

Please confirm if you are able to attend the conference by March 15th. You can secure your place by filling in the attached form.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Martha Winding, Phd

There are several indications that the email uses formal language:

  • The use of titles, such as "Mr" and "Dr".
  • The lack of contractions - "I would like" instead of "I'd like".
  • The use of conventional formal phrases, such as "Looking forward to hearing from you" and "Yours sincerely".

Formal language theory - what is the role of formal language?

The role of formal language is to serve the purpose of official correspondence, such as writing professional or academic texts.

  • Formal language also helps navigate conversations that need to have a formal tone, such as conversations between an employer and an employee, a teacher and a student, a customer and a shop manager etc.
  • Formal language is used to convey and receive knowledge and expertise as well as to give a sense of occasion. Formal language is the most appropriate language style for any official occasion - academia, conferences, debates, public speeches, and interviews.

Formal language examples

There are many different examples of formal language that can be applied on an everyday basis. Let's take a job interview and say someone is applying to work at a primary school. Which language style (formal or informal) would be better to use to get the job?

Style of languageJob interview example
Formal language exampleI believe that I am the best candidate for this position. I was told you have already reviewed my Diploma in Education. Furthermore, as you can see from my two references, I did my work experience working at a summer camp for children aged 5 to 8.
Informal language exampleI'm gonna do a great job here! You know, I've got all the things you need to have a look at, like the papers. I went to uni, I've worked with kids before.

If the speaker wants their expertise on a particular subject to be conveyed, they must use formal language.

Consider another example - a scientist presenting their research at a conference. Which language style (formal or informal) would be better?

Style of languageResearch paper example
Formal language exampleI would like to present my paper on the analysis of broadband night sky airglow intensity. Data were obtained at three different locations between the 21st of March and the 15th of June. The observations indicate previously unknown sources that occur during solar minimum.
Informal language exampleI just wanted to chat about my research. It's about broadband night sky airglow intensity. I did it at three places, from March to June. What I found is that there are new sources no one knew about before. It's like they show up when it's at solar minimum.

In this case, the speaker needs to use formal language in order to sound credible and to gain the respect and the attention of the audience.

Formal Language: Definitions & Example (1)Fig. 1 - Formal language is used in formal settings, such as a business meeting.

Difference between informal (natural) and formal language?

Formal and informal language are two contrasting styles of language that are used in different contexts. There are some clear differences between formal and informal language. We will explore examples of formal and informal language now so that it's easy for you to spot them!

Grammar

The grammar that is used in formal language can seem more complex than in informal language. Additionally, formal language sentences are usually longer than sentences that use informal language.

Let's take a look at this example of grammar in form language:

Formal language: We regret to inform you that you would not be able to purchase the item that you ordered on October 8th.

Informal language: We're really sorry but you can't buy what you ordered last week.

Note: both sentences state the same thing in different styles:

  • The formal language sentence is more complex and longer.
  • The informal language sentence goes straight to the point.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs are commonly used in formal language.

For instance, consider this example of a formal language sentence that uses the modal verb "would'':

Would you kindly inform us of the time of your arrival, please?

Contrarily, modal verbs are not used in informal language. The same request would sound different in an informal language sentence:

Can you please tell us when you're arriving?

The sentence is still polite but it's not formal, therefore there is no need for the use of a modal verb.

Phrasal verbs

Informal language uses phrasal verbs, but they are less common in formal language. Spot the difference in the example below:

Formal language: You are aware that you can count on our unwavering support on all occasions.

Informal language: You know we'll always back you up, no matter what.

The phrasal verb 'back (someone) up' appears in the informal language sentence. In the formal language sentence, phrasal verbs are not appropriate so the word that is used instead is 'support'.

Pronouns

Formal language is more official and less personal than informal language. That is why in many cases formal language uses the pronoun '' we '' instead of the pronoun '' I ''.

Consider this:

We are pleased to inform you that you are hired.

In informal language, the same message would be conveyed through this sentence:

I'm happy to let you know that you're a part of the team now!

Vocabulary

The vocabulary used in formal language can differ from the vocabulary used in informal language. Certain words are more common in formal language and less common in informal language.

Let's have a look at some synonyms:

  • purchase (formal) vs buy (informal)
  • assist (formal) vs help (informal)
  • inquire (formal) vs ask (informal)
  • disclose (formal) vs explain (informal)
  • discuss (formal) vs talk (informal)

Contractions

Contractions are not acceptable in formal language.

Take a look at this example of the use of contractions in informal language:

I can't go home.

In formal language, the same sentence would not use contractions:

I cannot return to my home.

Abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms

Abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms are yet another tool used to simplify language. Naturally, the use of abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms is common in informal language but it does not appear in formal language .

Consider these examples:

  • ASAP (informal) vs as soon as possible (formal)
  • photo (informal) vs photograph (formal)
  • ADHD (informal) vs Attention Deficit Disorder (formal)
  • FAQs (informal) vs Frequently asked questions (formal)
  • vs. (informal) - versus (formal)

Colloquial language and slang

Colloquial language and slang are also only used in informal language and do not fit into the context of formal language.

Let's take a look at these example sentences - an informal language sentence that uses colloquialisms and its formal equivalent:

Informal language: I just wanna say thanks.

Formal language: I would like to thank you.

Consider these two sentences - the informal language sentence includes a slang word whereas the formal one doesn't:

Informal language: You got a new dress? That's ace!

Formal language: You have a new dress? That's wonderful!

Formal language - key takeaways

  • Formal language is a style of speech and writing used when addressing someone we don't know, or someone we respect and on whom we would like to make a good impression.
  • Examples of formal language use are seen in official forms of communication, such as academic writing, work-related correspondence, and job applications.

  • The role of formal language is to convey and receive knowledge and expertise as well as to give a sense of occasion.

  • Formal language is different from informal language.

  • Formal language uses complex grammar, vocabulary and modal verbs. It also uses often the pronoun '' we '' instead of the pronoun '' I ''. Informal language uses simple grammar and vocabulary, phrasal verbs, contractions, abbreviations, acronyms, initialisms, colloquial language and slang.

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