Formal vs Informal English – is the landscape CHANGING?


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There was a time when I was young and first took on my first job that I learned that to be considered a ‘professional’ or ‘an employee’, there meant a clear understanding of heirachy and it was entrenched into our language. It usually came in the form of calling people in higher positions either ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ or “Mr or Mrs or Miss…’.

I was incredibly surprised however when I did start into my first job that my immediate superiors insisted on first names, Dave and Dale and Greg. Initially it was scary but ultimately made no difference to the feeling of whether they were superior or not, what it did do was make me feel like they were approachable and that they wanted to appear human to me.

In no way did it detract from my feelings that I was now able to use and abuse this person as if they were a person in the street, the respect was still there, no matter the name.

This brings me to the new world of ‘informal-ness’. In many ESL textbooks there are clear lessons on the difference between formal and informal language. Still today start a letter to someone you don’t know in a professional context should begin with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, however once you actually get to know that person (after a few letters or emails) slowly you find yourself sliding into the first name terms and even starting your letters with ‘Hi!’.

To add to this comes the new world of equality. When someone says that they are a CEO, it could mean that they manage 30,000 people or 3, the name is still the name, yet how we feel about talking to each is or was different, now we find ourselves becoming increasingly more informal with everyone.

So where is our ‘formal and informal language’ debate going? Should we drop all the ‘Dear Sirs, and Yours faithfully’s or should we redefine in fact when we should use them.

My proposal (and I want you to debate this with me), is to in fact redefine not ‘informal vs formal’ language, but redefine ‘respect’. Formal language is usually used to show respect, however does that mean that we don’t respect our friends or family?

I do believe that the black and white versions of formal and informal formats need to disappear, and there needs to be a new development in the ESL curriculum that explores the terms of ‘friendly language’ vs ‘unfriendly language’, as this is really what we are saying in this day and age. But the nuances for ‘friendly and unfriendly’ formats can also change depending on what the person feels comfortable.

What are your thoughts as a student or a teacher of ESL?


3 thoughts on “Formal vs Informal English – is the landscape CHANGING?

  1. I know from learning Polish, that they Poles a stricter sense of formal vs. informal language, than we do in English speaking countries. In Polish culture, if someone is in an older age category, formal language in addressing that person is used. In cases where ages are similar, it then depends on whether the person is known to you. If they are known, the language tends to be informal. Its important to acknowledge, in the ESL world, that some students will still be coming from regions where formal language remains an important part of everyday life.

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