Formal Versus Informal English: 6 Key Differences with Example Sentences
Like many languages, English has a formal and informal register (how a language is used in different situations).
Knowing the differences between the two can significantly improve your level of fluency.
So how do you, say, talk to a superior versus a close family member in English?
We cover all that (and more) in the post below!
- Formal Versus Informal English: Definitions and Differences
- And One More Thing...
Formal Versus Informal English: Definitions and Differences
- Formal English is the standard and polished form of English used in academic, business and similar contexts (like communications from the government, for example). You use it for people in a higher position than you (like your teacher or boss) or complete strangers—as well as academic or business writing, interviews and presentations.
- Informal English is used in everyday conversations and written communication in places like social media. You use it with family members, friends and peers (people who are your social equals) in casual settings.
Here are some formal English phrases you can use and their informal counterparts:
As you can see from the video, formal English uses correct grammar and vocabulary appropriate for the context. Meanwhile, informal English uses contractions, colloquialisms, slang and the like.
In case you’re wondering what “contractions,” “colloquialisms” and “slang” are, you’re in luck: that’s what we’ll cover in the next sections!
Contractions are common in informal language. Usually, they are two words merged together and are characterized (differentiated from others) by an apostrophe ( ‘ ).
Here are some of the most common contractions in the English language.
|Informal/Contracted Form||Formal Form|
|he's/she's||he is/she is|
A phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase that consists of a verb and another element, typically an adverb or preposition. Phrasal verbs are more common in informal contexts than formal ones.
Here are some examples:
|Phrasal Verb||Definition||Example Sentence|
|speak up||speak more loudly||I couldn't hear what he said, so I asked him to speak up.|
|turn down||refuse||I can't turn down an invitation from my boss.|
|find out||discover||If my parents find out what I did, they won't be happy.|
|got away||escape||He left the door open, and one of the hamsters got away.|
|run into||to meet suddenly||I didn't expect to run into my friend at the mall, but I did.|
|set off||begin a journey, start||Bilbo Baggins set off for his journey into the kingdom of Erebor.|
|break up||end a relationship||They had such a good relationship that I didn't expect them to break up.|
|check (somebody/something) out||look at them/it closely||Check out that new restaurant down the block!|
|give up||quit, surrender||I will never give up on my dreams.|
|look after||take care of, watch over||He looks after his nephew while his brother is at work.|
|put off||postpone, delay||The meeting was put off until next Thursday.|
|work out||find a solution||I will try to work something out to solve our budget problems.|
|come across||appear||He comes across as quiet, but he actually likes to laugh out loud.|
|bring up||mention, introduce a topic||You should bring up that idea in our next meeting. It sounds great!|
|get along||have a good relationship||We live in the same house, so we should all get along.|
Colloquialisms and Slang
Colloquialisms and slang are words and phrases regarded as very informal and rarely used in written speech. They typically vary between groups of people, regions, professions or age groups.
In the English-speaking world, Americans use different slang from Brits (slang word for people from Britain) and Aussies (slang word for people from Australia), such as:
|dude||friend (usually male)||Dude, what is happening to you?|
|buck||American dollar||How many bucks do you have left?|
|zonked||tired, exhausted||Working 16 hours a day for five days straight left me zonked.|
|chill out||relax||You should chill out after working 16 hours a day for five days straight.|
|sweet||good, awesome||Sweet, thank you for the birthday present!|
|bail||leave/depart quickly||I need to bail; the bus is leaving in five minutes.|
|hella||very, extremely||The sushi from that new restaurant was hella good.|
|freak out||become agitated/anxious||My friend doesn't freak out even under pressure.|
|hang out||spend time together casually||Do you want to hang out sometime?|
|kiddo||informal term of endearment for a child or younger person||Kiddo, trust me: I know what it's like to be in your position.|
|no biggie||no big deal, not a significant issue||No biggie if you can't come tomorrow. I'm also free next week!|
|y'all||contraction of "you all"||Y'all won't believe what just happened to me!|
|sick||amazing, awesome||Dude, that rock concert was sick!|
|lotta||contraction of "lot of"||My favorite Led Zeppelin song is "A Whole Lotta Love."|
|dunno||contraction of "don't know"||I dunno where Anne went.|
To paraphrase (explain in my own words) the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an idiom is an expression in which you can’t easily guess the actual meaning from the words used.
Here are examples of idioms commonly found in informal conversations:
|take a rain check||politely refusing an offer||Sorry, I'll have to take a rain check regarding tonight's dinner.|
|get the cold shoulder||to be treated in an unfriendly way||Please don't give me the cold shoulder. Talk to me.|
|spill the beans||to reveal a secret||Come on. Spill the beans about what's really going on with Lucy.|
|go Dutch||to pay for one's own food or drink||I don't have enough money, so you guys will have to go Dutch for tonight's dinner.|
|a piece of cake||easy, effortless||She's a smart girl, so most school subjects are a piece of cake for her.|
|break the ice||to start a conversation||Since we're all new here, let's break the ice!|
|on the same page||to have the same understanding about a matter||I want to make sure we're all on the same page regarding this project.|
|cut to the chase||get to the point, skip unnecessary details||It's better to cut to the chase than to talk on and on without getting anywhere.|
|cry over spilled milk||to get sad or upset about a mistake that cannot be reversed||There's no use crying over spilled milk.|
|blessing in disguise||something that looks negative but has a positive outcome||Missing the bus was a blessing in disguise because I met the love of my life at the bus stop.|
|take it with a grain of salt||to not believe something completely||John is a liar, so take anything he says with a grain of salt.|
|break a leg||good luck||Break a leg at tomorrow's competition!|
|needle in a haystack||something that is hard to find||Looking for a ring that fell into the ocean is like looking for a needle in a haystack.|
|under the weather||sick||Sorry I can't come to the party tonight. I'm feeling under the weather.|
|kill two birds with one stone||to accomplish two things at the same time||Talking a walk helps me relax and enjoy nature—killing two birds with one stone.|
In informal contexts, first-person pronouns (I and we) are more frequently used—this makes for sentences that use the active voice. On the other hand, you’ll typically see passive voice in formal settings, particularly in official or academic writing.
Here are examples of sentences using first-person pronouns, along with their more formal versions. Notice how different they come across, even though they say the same thing!
|Active Voice/Informal Form||Passive Voice/Formal Form|
|We asked the students to complete a survey.||The students were asked to complete a survey.|
|I need to finish this report by Friday night.||The report must be finished by Friday night.|
|We need to write a letter to the supervisor.||A letter must be written to the supervisor.|
|We will give incentives to those who have exceptional performance.||Those who have exceptional performance will be given incentives.|
|I will send you the draft next week.||The draft will be sent next week.|
|We will launch a new product within the next six months.||A new product will be launched within the next six months.|
|I will create a report for the board of directors.||A report will be created for the board of directors.|
|We will fill out these forms and send them to HR.||These forms will be filled out and sent to HR.|
|I will change your order to a different one.||This order will be changed to a different one.|
|I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.||Your thoughts on the matter are appreciated.|
|We will hold the meeting on Wednesday.||The meeting will be held on Wednesday.|
Everyday Phrases in Formal and Informal English
If you want more examples (and need some handy phrases you can use for friends versus your boss), here’s another table for you!0
And if you want to see these phrases in action, you can browse any of the videos from FluentU‘s library.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Learning the differences between formal and informal English will go a long way in improving your grasp of the language. The better you master words and phrases from both registers, the more natural your speech will sound and the more confident you’ll feel!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.