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3.3: Formal and Informal Language

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    Learning Outcomes

    1. Differentiate between informal and formal language.
    2. Determine the different types of informal language.
    3. Understand improper language and biased language.

    Competent communicators adapt their words to their audience and the communication context. For example, in a text to your best friend, you are going to use more casual words and grammar than in a paper you turn in to your English professor. One of these contexts calls for formal language whereas informal language is fine for the other.

    Formal vs. Informal Language

    Formal language is official and academic language.  You should use formal language in papers, written discussions, tests, research papers, resumes, and cover letters. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Formal vs. Informal Language

    Formal Language

    Informal Language

    Used in carefully edited communication. Used in impromptu, conversational communication.
    Used in academic or official content. Used in everyday communication.
    The sentence structure is longer and more complicated. The sentence structure is short, choppy, and improvised.
    The emphasis is on grammatical correctness. The emphasis is on easily understood messages using everyday phrases.
    Speakers/writers may avoid the use of contractions. Speakers/writers actively include contractions.
    Avoid the inclusion of emotionally laden ideas and words. It allows for the inclusion of emotions and empathy.
    Language should be objective. Language can be subjective.
    Language should avoid the use of colloquialisms. It’s perfectly appropriate to use colloquialisms.
    Only use an acronym (CEO) after it has clearly been explained or spelled out once. People use acronyms without always clearly spelling out what it means.
    All sentences should be complete (clear subjects and verbs). Sentences may be incomplete (lacking a clear subject and/or verb).
    Arguments are supported by facts and documented research. Arguments are supported by personal beliefs and opinions.
    Language is gender-neutral. Language includes gender references.

    Informal Language

    Informal language is a common, everyday language, which might include slang words. It is casual and continually changing. We use informal language when we talk to others, and when you look at your text messages, you will probably see several examples of informal language.


    Jargon is the specialized or technical language of a specific group or profession that may not be understood by outsiders. If you are really into cars or computers, you probably know a lot about the different parts and functions as well as terms or jargon that a general audience wouldn’t understand. Jargon is usually appropriate when communicating with others in your profession or group but should be avoided unless you are certain the people you are speaking to are familiar with the terms. Your provides a list of commonly heard jargon phrases used in the business world. ( 

    • Blue-sky thinking - A creative idea that doesn't always have a practical application
    • Think outside the box - Don't limit your thinking; use your creativity
    • The helicopter view - An overview of a job or a project
    • Drink our own champagne - A phrase meaning that a business will use the same product that they sell to their customers. The champagne is an indicator of a good product.
    • Heavy lifting - The most difficult aspects of a project, as in, "Bill is doing all the heavy lifting for us!"
    • Hammer it out - To type something up
    • Win-win situation - A solution where all parties are satisfied with the results

    Chances are you have heard a few of these jargon phrases, but others may be new to you. Take a minute and think through all of the jargon you hear on an average day.


    What do you call a carbonated beverage?  Is it a soda, soft drink, a Coke, or a pop?  The colloquialism you use is most likely determined by where you grew up. Colloquialisms are informal words that vary from region to region. Examples might be “wanna” instead of “want to” or “gonna” instead of “going to.”

     How many of these colloquialisms do you use?

    • Ballpark - used to describe something that is close to accurate
    • Bomb - to do terribly on a test
    • Flake - a person who cancels plans regularly or the act of regularly canceling plans
    • Raincheck - a promise to reschedule plans that had to be canceled
    • Ride shotgun - to sit in the front passenger seat of a car
    • Go bananas, or go nuts – go insane or be very angry
    • Pop into my head – to have a new thought
    • Wanna – want to
    • Y’all – you all
    • Yinz – you all


    Slang refers to informal words that are used within certain groups, such as young adults and teens. You most certainly use different slang expressions than your parents or grandparents. Slang is often used in conversations with those who are similar and have experience with each other and should be avoided in academic and professional writing (including emails), speeches and presentations, and even in class and group discussions (unless you are absolutely certain everyone else uses the same slang as you). How many of these slang expressions do you use?

    • Bye Felicia (saying goodbye to someone you don’t like)
    • The Tea (gossip)
    • Bro (typically a male friend)
    • Cash (money)
    • Cheesy (cheap or tacky)
    • Ship (wanting people to be in a relationship, whether real or fictional)
    • Frenemy (someone who is both a friend and an enemy)
    • Thirsty (being overly eager or desperate)
    • Throw Shade (to insult another person)
    • YOLO (you only live once)
    • Woke (being acutely aware of social injustice within society)

    What is common slang today could be completely outdated tomorrow? Dominic-Madori Davis gives examples of slang expressions from Gen. Z (people born 1997 ---) along with their Baby Boomer (people born 1946 – 1964) equivalent.

    Gen Z: That movie was fire; you have to check it out.                   Baby Boomer: I liked that movie; it was groovy.

    Gen Z: You really look salty right now.  What happened?              Baby Boomer: You really look hacked off.  What happened?

    Gen Z: Their dress at prom was a lewk.                                      Baby Boomer: Yeah, they were all decked out.


    Idioms are expressions or figures of speech that are used in everyday speech that has been given meaning over time because of common usage.  Idioms can be especially hard to grasp for new residents or citizens because the actual words in the idiom have very little relationship to the overall meaning of the phrase. Do you know the meaning of the following idioms?

    • Stir up a hornet’s nest
    • Bite off more than you can chew
    • Under the weather
    • Sat on a fence
    • The ball is in your court


    A cliché is a once-clever word or phrase that has lost its impact through overuse. If you spoke or wrote in clichés, how would others react? Let’s try it. How do you react when you read this sentence: “A cliché is something to avoid like the plague, for it is nothing but a tired old warhorse, and if the shoe were on the other foot, you too would have an ax to grind”? As you can see, the problem with clichés is that they often sound silly or boring. Clichés are sometimes seen as a symptom of lazy communication—the person using the cliché hasn’t bothered to search for original words to convey the intended meaning. As a result, they can be obstacles to successful communication. Avoid cliches in academic or professional writing and speeches.


    Textspeak is the language and spelling that people use when they are writing text messages.  Textspeak is fine in your personal life but is inappropriate for academic assessments and most communication in the workplace.  Most students realize that textspeak is inappropriate in essays and research papers, but the words and grammar still show up where they shouldn't, such as emails between students and instructors, or on classroom discussion boards.  Although emails and discussion boards are less formal than research papers, they still should be written with care and consideration for the reader.  It is important to use capital letters when called for and to use punctuation appropriately, important details that are often omitted in textspeak.

    Mindfulness Activity

    Mindfulness Activity.PNGFor an entire day, take a minute to pause before you text or email someone. When we text or email someone, we typically just put our thoughts together in a quick fashion. Take a second to decide how you plan to use your words. Think about which words would be best to get our message across effectively. After you have typed your message, take another few minutes to reread the message. Be mindful of how others might interpret it. Would they understand what you intend to communicate, or is it possible they might misinterpret your message? What can you do to make certain your message is conveyed accurately?

    Researchers have found that when college students can address their emotions and are mindful of their feelings, it can enhance written communication with others.31 After doing this activity, try to be more mindful of the things that you send to other people.

    Key Takeaways

    • Formal language is more careful and more mannered than everyday speech, whereas informal language is appropriate in casual conversation.
    • Informal language includes (1) Jargon, or technical language; (2) Colloquialism, or informal expressions; (3) Slang, or nonstandard language; (4) Idioms, or expressions or figures of speech; (5) clichés, or sayings that are overused and predictable.


    • Create a list of jargon or slang words that you use and what they mean. Ask your parents or grandparents to share some of the slang they grew up hearing.  Compare your lists. 
    • Create a list of colloquialisms or idioms. Find an international student and see if these words make sense. What was confusing or unclear?
    • Ask an international friend or classmate to share clichés that are used in his or her culture, or locate clichés through research. See if you can find an American equivalent of each cliché.

    3.3: Formal and Informal Language is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.