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Language and Style

Written and oral styles of English


Language and Style


From formal style to informal style - how are they different ?


In any language, different styles of expression are appropriate in different situations. We can go from the formal to the informal, the written to the spoken, from technical language (or jargon) to slang.


There are no "rules" as such; nevertheless, there are plenty of features which distinguish formal styles from informal styles. Here are some of them.


Principles of English style


Note: these are principles: they are by no means to be considered as "rules".


  • a) The more formal a document  is, the more it will use inanimate nouns as subjects of a sentence.
  • b) The more formal language is, the more it is likely to use passive structures.
  • c) The more formal language is, the more verbal nouns it will use.
  • d) The more formal a d ocument is, the more words of Latin origin it will use.




  • a) The more informal or spontaneous language is, the more it will use humans as the subjects of sentences.
  • b) The more informal a text is, the less it will use passive structures,
  • c) The more informal a text is, the more it will use verb structures (where a choice is possible) instead of verbal nouns.
  • b) The more informal or spoken a text is, the more words of Germanic origin it will use.


Here are some examples; in each case, the same idea is expressed using three different levels of formality: look at the different changes that occur, as we move from a formal style to an informal one


From formal to informal, written to spoken English


1. The inclement climatic conditions obliged the President to return earlier than scheduled.
The president was obliged to return earlier than planned due to poor weather conditions.
The president had to go back sooner than  planned because the weather was so bad.
2. Please await instructions before dispatching items.
Please wait for instructions before sending items off.
Don't send anything off until you're told to do so.
3. Essential measures should be undertaken at the earliest opportunity.
One should undertake any necessary measures at the earliest opportunity.
You should do whatever you have to as soon as you can.
4. Prior to the discovery of America, potatoes were not consumed in Europe.
Before America was discovered, potatoes were not eaten in Europe.
Before they discovered America, Europeans didn't eat potatoes.

Written and spoken versions of a language use different styles, different registers. To talk in "written English" may be no more appropriate than to write using a "spoken" variety of English. Generally speaking, written English is always more formal than spoken English. nevertheless, there are informal forms of written English (notably in fiction and in the popular press), and formal styles of spoken English, in particular "discourse", or prepared speech.


Written style can also be affected by the length of sentences used, the length of paragraphs, and other features of punctuation.


The same idea expressed in six different styles:


In the following examples, the same message is expressed in six different styles, from an extremely formal written style, to a very informal spoken style.  Note in particular how the colour coded word groups evolve.

In order to demonstrate a full range of styles using a single "message", it is necessary to choose a subject or topic which people actually write or talk about in a whole range of contexts. These examples show the different styles, from the very formal to the informal, that could be used for expressing a message  about  government fiscal policy (or, to put it less formally, government tax policy).  Different parts of the message are colour-coded: see how they change from one style to the next.  Note that the British currency is formally known as "Sterling", and most often spoken about as "the Pound".
a) Jargon, very formal.

This is the style of language used in official reports, technical studies, etc. It is exclusively a style of written English, full of verbal nouns, technical words and passives.
Consequent to the appreciation in the exchange value of Sterling against other currencies, necessary fiscal measures were introduced by the government in order to reduce the likelihood of an import-led consumer spending surge.
b) Written, formal, clear.

This is clear, written English, as found in the "quality" press or in documents - even on technical subjects - aimed at ordinary educated readers.
After the international value of Sterling rose, the government was obliged to take fiscal measures to reduce the likelihood of a surge in consumer spending led by cheaper imports.
c) Written style for the general public, discourse, scripted radio or TV news style.

This is classic English written style, as found in books, popular newspapers,  and magazines for the general public. It is the style of formal discourse – discourse being spoken English from a written or "scripted" text.

As the value of Sterling increased compared to other currencies, the government was forced to take tax measures to head off a rapid increase in consumer spending spurred on by cheaper imports.
d) Formal spoken style - radio, seminar, talk.

As Sterling's international value went up, the government had to take tax measures to head off a consumer spending boom spurred on by cheaper imports.
e) Relaxed, informal spoken style: discussion.

There is plenty of use of prepositional verbs. All actions are now expressed through verbs, not verbal nouns
Asthe Pound went up in value, the government had to put up taxes  to  stop consumers splashing out on too many cheap imports.
f) relaxed, simplified, chat, very informal spoken style; 
Note the addition of repetition and fillers.
And you see, the Pound went up and up in value, so as a result the government had to go round putting up taxes,  you see, to stop everyone going out and splashing out, spending all their cash on cheap imports.


Example 2


Citizens  whose normal place of abode is outwith the United States of America are henceforth required to register their interests with the United States consulate nearest their domicile ; failure to register may lead to forfeiture of fiscal exemptions on  revenues paid by sources in the United States.