THE FCE BLOG by Claudia Ceraso

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Formal and Informal Language

Formal and Informal Language

The point is this. You may write correctly and be out of place. We are not writing to pass a test (only). We write because we want to communicate; we want to get results or a reaction from the other person.

At this level, you need to understand the difference between:
  • correct language
  • appropriate language
In a nutshell, when you are correct, your sentences are well formed. You are making use of good grammar. When you are appropriate, your choice of words and expressions adjust to the effect you want to make on a given person in a specific situation.

Sounds complex?
For example, it is not the same to ask "where do you live?" at a job interview or at a bar when meeting friends.
Watch this (just 25 seconds).

See? It is very different.

The style, the register, can vary in a not-always linear scale going from very formal to colloquial.

What can be somewhat difficult is for a non-native speaker of a language to become sensitive to those differences in a variety of contexts. To get that 'feeling' of a language, some people say it is necessary to live in the country where English is spoken.

I'd say, not necessarily.

Here's why. To get that grasp on a language, you have to become perceptive to situational variables. It is not enough to say, "I've heard it. So it exists." It is vital to hear it in context.

So how do we learn this?, you ask.

Build context to what you hear. Learn "When to say it".

OK. But how?

Every time you see films, or travel, or read in English pay attention to the following:
  1. Who is speaking? What is his relationship with the other person? (Friend? Boss?)
  2. Where are they speaking? (At the office? At home?)
  3. What is the purpose of the conversation? (To get a job? To invite to a party?)
You need to attach this information to the language you want to learn. It's crucial.

Now, please do not expect a clear line to divide everything. A letter of application is formal by definition. However, if you want to get a job as a DJ, you would not be so formal as to get a scholarship from a university. There are degrees. Nothing is final in a language. But there are patterns you can -with time- distinguish.

It is this attitude to listening for context that will teach you more than trips. And practice of course! So let's go...

Some links:
Here are a couple of downloadable pdf worksheets (with answers) from the BBC.
These are a collection of handouts and exercises detailing characteristics of formal and informal writing.

The Corpus Wiki has a page to enlarge on all this.

Related post: English Grammar

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