• 3-minute read
  • 21st September 2016

Formal vs. Informal English (Why and When Grammar Matters)

Some people say correcting people’s grammar makes you a snob (or, in the words of one commentator, “patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong”).

As proofreaders, this puts us in a difficult position: On the one hand, we don’t want to be “patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong.” On the other hand, we’re professional pedants, using our knowledge of English to help people communicate.

Perhaps the real question is when it’s appropriate to insist on particular grammatical standards. First, though, we should consider the difference between formal and informal English.

Formal English

Formal English sticks to the prescribed rules of spelling and grammar. This is far more common in writing than speech, especially academic writing and in professional settings. In this kind of English, it’s typical to:

  • Use conventional grammar and spelling
  • Avoid contractions (e.g., “don’t” or “should’ve”) and slang
  • Use academic or technical language
  • Use complete sentences, as well as longer or more complex sentences
  • Require consistent use of terminology/punctuation

This kind of writing can seem “snobby,” especially if the author uses very obscure words or complicated sentences. But a good writer will use formal English to ensure clarity and precision.

The advantage of formal English is that it helps people communicate by providing a standard style of writing. This is why colleges use academic English, but being able to use formal language is valuable elsewhere, too.

The important thing is knowing when to use formal English: e.g. at work, in college papers, when communicating with authority figures, etc.

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Formal English is also useful for making awkward small talk with the Queen of England. Admittedly, this isn't a daily issue for most people.
It’s also useful for talking with the Queen of England. Admittedly, this isn’t a daily issue for most people.

Informal English

Informal English covers any form of written or spoken English that doesn’t stick to standard spelling and grammar, or that uses slang and informal words.

This is the kind of everyday language we use when talking with friends or family. There is, obviously enough, no standard form of informal English, since it simply refers to non-standard English, which can even encompass “txtspk”!

There's no such thing as formal "txtspk." Yet.
There’s no such thing as formal “txtspk.” So far.

Does Grammar Really Matter?

When using formal English, grammar and spelling are important. It’s not that formal English is inherently “better.” it’s simply that using formal English in professional or academic settings aids communication and clarity.

By comparison, mistakes like mixing up “their” and “they’re” in a college paper could imply a lack of care or attention, even if the reader can tell what you intended.

However, if you’re just hanging out with friends and you feel an urge to tell someone off for splitting an infinitive, it could insult or annoy the person you’re correcting.

Thus, if grammar matters more to you than your friends, feel free to be pedantic. Otherwise, it might be best to save formal English for when it really counts.

Alternativey, if you already carry around a red pen for correcting mistakes wherever you go, you might want to try a career in proofreading.
If you already carry a red pen for correcting mistakes wherever you go, you might want to try a career in proofreading.

Comments (2)
Venusto Hubert Kasyamakula
11th November 2020 at 07:12
Wednesday, 11th November, 2020 I do like this format of date writing
    11th November 2020 at 10:20
    Hi there. The date format in US English puts the month before the date, so it should probably be "Wednesday, November 11, 2020."

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