The major differences between formal and informal speech come from the social and cultural contexts in which speakers use them. Speakers tend to use informal English among friends and relatives. Informal speech can include informal text messages and other written communication. Speakers use formal speech in more professional settings, usually among colleagues or new acquaintances. Judgment of comfort level and social expectations give clues to speakers so that the average person switches between formal and informal speech in a variety of situations.

To recognize the difference between formal and informal English, pay close attention to contractions, phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and, in informal text, the use of the first person.

Informal English Uses More Contractions

A contraction is a shortening of two words that combines them into one. Some common examples of contractions are can’t, won’t and don't. While most who speak English use contractions regularly, whether you're speaking in a formal setting to business people or your friends at school, contractions in formal written English are less common. So the use of contractions sometimes makes an easy indicator if a piece of writing qualifies as informal text. The more informal a text is, the more it will sound like regular speech, contractions and all.

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Example Sentence: "I can’t go to school today because my car won’t start."

This sentence is informal for a number of reasons. The primary one is its use of contractions. To make the sentence sound more formal, a writer could take out the instances of contractions and replace them with their standard English equivalent.

New Sentence: "I cannot go to school today because my car refused to start."

Phrasal Verbs Abound in Informal Speech

A phrasal verb is an idiom in which a verb is accompanied by another word to make a complete expression. Some examples include “picked on,” “takes after” and “looking forward to.”

Example Sentence: "I put up with his shenanigans for so long that the two of us would have passed for brothers."

Not only do the phrasal verbs in this sentence make it informal, they make the sentence feel long-winded and wordy as well. To correct that, a writer should find more succinct synonyms for the phrasal verbs.

New Sentence: "I endured his shenanigans for so long that the two of us seemed like brothers."

Informal Speaking Patterns Use Colloquialisms and Slang

Slang is a type of vocabulary used by one social group but not by the population at large. Colloquial speech often refers to the use of a regional dialect and is often conflated with informal speech.

Example Sentence: "My rad Delorean zapped me all the way to the 2020s, and it was a totally righteous trip."

The problem with slang is that it isn’t always descriptive. It indicates tone and feeling more than it does detail. As you will see, attempting to excise slang can completely change the meaning of a sentence, so be careful!

New Sentence: "My energy-efficient Delorean helped me travel to the 2020s, and the trip was quite informative."

Watch for First Person Pronouns in Informal Text

While most people speak in the first person, many types of documents require more formal third-person writing. If you're writing a formal essay, watch out for the sneaky “I” appearing where it shouldn’t.

Example Sentence: "I think time travel is a fascinating subject, but I’m not sure it will ever become as easy as in the movies."

Even when writing an opinion essay, the use of the first person is unnecessary. The reader will assume that you think or believe everything you write unless you say otherwise. To make your writing more formal, remove the first person.

New Sentence: "Time travel is a fascinating subject, but it will never become as easy as in the movies."

About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and freelance writer from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Glamour and elsewhere.