Contributed by Barbara (Canberra ESL Team)


Knowing how and when to use formal and informal English language is a big part of communicating well in any language. Many languages have special pronouns or grammatical cases to signal formal language, such as the German formal pronoun ‘Sie’ and the French pronoun ‘vous’. Some languages have a completely separate form, like Al-Fus’ha for Arabic speakers.


As all learners of English discover at some point, English does not have a special pronoun or grammatical case. Instead, levels of formality are communicated through a combination of vocabulary, procedure/ritual, and strict adherence to grammar rules. Also, unlike most languages, which have only two levels of formality – informal and formal – English has three levels – informal, neutral, and formal.


Take the example below. All three phrases are asking to speak to someone, however all three are very different.


Got a sec? Can I ask you something? Could I disturb you for a minute?



When to use which

Neutral language is usually taught in English language courses and it can be spoken in any social context. Proper grammar is used, however contractions are common. If you are not sure, it’s best to use neutral language!


Informal language should be used with close family and friends, or in situations where you want to create an atmosphere of intimacy. For example, Amanda Palmer from the Dresden Dolls is famous for this. She speaks to her fans as if they are all family because she wants to build a community. In some countries, like Australia, it is common to use a mix of neutral and informal language in most social and workplace settings. Meaning is usually understood through context, and therefore precise grammar is not always necessary.


Formal language used in serious situations, situations in which you are speaking to a stranger, or in situations where you are speaking to someone on a higher level than you. You can use formal language to acknowledge or create some distance between you and the person or people you are speaking to. The structure of formal language is usually more complex than neutral language, therefore grammar is very important to help with meaning.



Degrees of formality

What many English learners are surprised to learn is that there are several levels of formal English. The most formal level is used only for special occasions, official communication (i.e. letters and announcements, public speaking to large groups when there is a hierarchy or power difference, such as a monarch to their subjects) and when you want to put great distance between yourself and the person/people you are speaking with. This is sometimes referred to as hyper-formal and in these situations all conventions of formal language are followed, but a ritual is added, such as a traditional word order, or a set of specific actions (e.g. raising your right hand to make a pledge.)


Hyper-Formal examples include:

Wedding We are gathered here today to witness….


By the power invested in me by the Commonwealth…I now pronounce you…

Excerpt from Australian citizenship pledge From this time forward…I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.


For most English speakers, native and non-native alike, hyper-formal language is not used very often. It is not uncommon to have the need to do a little research, or to practice a little beforehand.


One final tip!

A change in the level of language formality means a change in relationship. You may need to change how formally you speak to someone to show that you no longer consider them a close friend, or that the situation has become much more serious. This is one useful application of different language formalities, but be intentional! The person you are speaking to will notice the change and look for reasons why it happened.


About ESL Tutoring Services

At ESL Tutoring Services, we aim to help our students to succeed in all areas of their life, including helping them to master how to use forml and informal language appropriately. If you’re needing to brush up on your formal English skills for the workplace, book in for a session with one of our highly trained tutors at ESL Tutoring Services.


At ESL Tutoring we tailor our lesson for your particular needs. Every person is unique, so the lessons we prepare are also different for each individual learner. At ESL Tutoring, we don’t just go from one chapter to another in a text book. We teach you what you want to know and our tutors put in the extra effort to help you achieve your goals. We don’t just teach English. We live English!  Contact us today to learn more about what we can offer. We offer our teaching services in BrisbaneCanberraMelbourne and Sydney, as well as online.


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