Formal English is a way of speaking that you usually use when you don't know the people listening to you very well. You also tend to use it more with people who are higher status and who you want to impress. English learners are usually taught formal English in school, and native English speakers are taught to use it in writing and for speeches and interviews.
How formal English is different
In formal English, people usually:
- pronounce words more carefully. For example, in casual speech, people sometimes don't pronounce the "g" sound at the end of words ending in "-ing". In formal speech, people are more careful to pronounce this.
- use more words that originally came from French and Latin. For example, in formal English you use words like "intelligent" instead of "smart", or "arrive" instead of "come".
- don't use as many contractions (like "it's", "they're", "I'm", etc.).
use more longer sentences with more complex structure. For example, here's a sentence from Time magazine:
Subsequent trials have repeated these results, showing again and again that patients who undergo aerobic exercise regimens see comparable improvement in their depression as those treated with medication, and that both groups do better than patients given only a placebo.
That's all one sentence!
There are so many more characteristics of formal speech that I couldn't possibly list them all here. To learn how to speak and write formally, you can study English grammar books and read newspapers and magazines. I also leave notes on PhraseMix sometimes about phrases that fit well in formal situations.
When to be formal
When should you use formal English? Here are some situations:
- When writing an essay for a class.
- When writing an email for work that's going to go out to a lot of people in the company who you don't personally know.
- When speaking to a customer who you don't know on a first-name basis.
- When speaking with someone who's a lot older than you.
Some might disagree, but I think that English learners usually use formal English a little too much. There are two reasons for that:
- English textbooks and classes mostly focus on formal English.
- English learners are afraid of being "rude".
However, polite English and formal English aren't necessarily the same. There are some situations in which speaking too formally can actually seem like an insult.
Examples of Formal English
There are lots of PhraseMix lessons tagged "formal"