When you are introduced to somebody for the first time, what should you say?
a) Nice to meet you
b) How do you do?
c) What’s up?
You may or may not be surprised to know that all three are common and appropriate in certain situations. They all perform the same function but they have different levels of formality.
a) Nice to meet you – This is neutral and can be used in most social contexts with most people.
b) How do you do? – This is a formal phrase that would only be used on formal occasions with specific people.
c) What’s up? – This is informal and would only be used on specific occasions by certain people.
This distinction between formal, neutral and informal registers (or styles) is not always so clear.
You may think that we would use a formal style in a situation such as an interview for a job.
However, I don’t think many people would use b) nowadays, because it is old-fashioned and rarely used, except in rare situations such as being invited to have a cup of tea with the Queen!
The neutral phrase (Nice to meet you) is probably the most suitable of the three for job interviews, although the informal phrase (What’s up?) might be fine if the interviewer is a young, relaxed American.
On the whole, formality in spoken English is not as common or important as it used to be. In the past, people made clear distinctions between formal language (which was often considered to be the correct form) and informal language (which was often considered inferior and incorrect). These days, we are aware that we make decisions about which style of language based on what is considered appropriate in each particular situation.
Characteristics of formal, neutral and informal spoken English
Formal language is characterised by the following features:
- complex sentences
- use of reported speech
- indirect questions
- use of modals such as could and would rather than can and will
- full forms (should not) instead of contractions (shouldn’t)
- frequent use of the passive voice
- limited use of phrasal verbs
- frequent use of long words with Latin or Greek roots
Neutral language is characterised by:
- simpler sentences
- active rather than passive voice
- factual rather than emotional language
- limited use of complex language
- limited use of slang
Informal language is characterised by:
- simple, often grammatically incomplete, sentences
- active voice
- emotional language
- personal opinions
- slang, idioms and cliches
- phrasal verbs
Now, deciding which style to use can be difficult. To start with, we need to consider 2 main factors:
1. The degree of social distance between the speakers. If we know somebody well (friends, family, some colleagues) we generally use informal language. When we don’t people well or they are strangers, we generally use neutral language. When we don’t know somebody well and they have a high social status (judges, doctors, company directors, religious leaders), we may use a formal style to show deference (respect and politeness).
2. The nature of the topic. When we discuss serious or sensitive topics, we sometimes use formal language. This shows that we are thinking deeply about the topic and understand that it is serious and complex. So, when people discuss some aspects of business, intellectual conversations, official meetings, it is common to use formal language. In contrast, when we talk about everyday topics, we generally use informal language with friends and family and neutral language with strangers or people we don’t know well.
Another way of deciding which register is appropriate is to ask these questions:
- Where are we?
- What are we talking about?
- Who are we talking to?
- How do we feel about the person and the topic of the conversation?
Let’s look at these questions in more detail:
1. Where are we?
If we are in a relaxed, social environment such as a bar or a cafe, we probably don’t need to use formal English. In fact, using formal polite English might lead to a negative or unfriendly response.
A student of mine ordered a beer in a pub in London and made a polite request to the barman:
I wonder if you would be so kind as to serve me a glass of beer, sir.
The barman responded angrily, believing the student was making fun of him. In this environment, formal language was clearly inappropriate. As well as using an inappropriate register (formal), the student also failed to realise that we use phrases such as ‘I wonder if you would be so kind…‘ when we need somebody to do us a favour. As a barman’s job is to serve drinks to paying customers, he was perhaps offended by the choice of language used.
Formal language, however, is suitable in certain settings. If you go to an official ceremony (weddings, funeral, graduations), you will certainly notice that the people present use fixed formal phrases that are specific to the event, such as this phrase only ever heard at weddings:
Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding to the bride and groom.
In general, we don’t need to worry about learning these specific phrases, unless we are going to have an important role in these ceremonies. Just make sure you don’t use informal phrases when you speak to people you don’t know very well.
2. What are we talking about?
We tend to choose a particular register when we discuss certain topics. When we talk about everyday topics such as sports, weather, travel or TV shows, we are unlikely to use formal language. Again, using formal language may annoy the person you are talking to. Most people use informal or neutral more frequently than formal language outside of work. Therefore, if you use formal language when discussing an everyday topic, you may find that people think you are showing off or possibly being unfriendly.
On the other hand, we commonly use formal language to discuss some topics. These topics are generally of a more serious nature, such as business issues, politics, religion,personal finance and health issues. That is why even people you know may use more formal language if they talk about these serious issues with you. Serious topics often require serious language. You may joke with your boss in the office (informal language) but you are both likely to adopt formal language if you are negotiating a new contract.
3. Who are we talking to?
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you might find you use informal and formal language with the same person. This can cause problems because you may think you have a friendly relationship with somebody (because you sometimes communicate with informal language) and then find your relationship is fundamentally a professional one. In fact, you might decide to maintain a professional relationship and use neutral language with some of your colleagues or teachers: you know them quite well but they are not necessarily your friends.
It is probably more common to use neutral language rather than formal language with strangers. When we have small talk with somebody on a bus or with a taxi driver, we are unlikely to talk about serious topics.
4. How do we feel about the person and the topic of the conversation?
Our emotional attitude towards the person and the topic often determines whether we use informal, neutral or formal language. We may even start with neutral language and then switch to a formal style as the conversation changes.
Imagine we get into a taxi and start chatting to the taxi driver about an everyday topic, such as the weather. We would probably use neutral, perhaps even informal language, with them as the topic is a familiar one. This would probably change dramatically if the taxi driver tried to overcharge us. In order to show our frustration, we might switch to formal language to show we are serious about the topic (the price) and to demonstrate that the social interaction is a professional not a personal one.
So, as you can see, choosing the right level of formality when you communicate in English is important. But remember that native or proficient speakers will not necessarily be offended if your style is not entirely appropriate. We recognise that you are learning the language.
If you are able to use formal, neutral and informal language when you speak, you should find that you are able to express yourself appropriately in most situations.
However, out of the three styles, I would suggest that the formal style may be the least important. Unless you need it for professional or academic purposes, formal spoken English is not particularly common and you can often use a neutral style instead and still communicate in a suitable way.
Informal language helps you build friendships and develop strong relationships with people. It also allows you to express your sense of humour effectively.
Neutral language helps you deal with most everyday situations in a variety of different environments. It’s the default style and will rarely be inappropriate.
Formal language helps you function effectively in certain situations and will be appropriate in many professional, academic or official contexts. It’s useful for dealing with figures of authority.
So, next time you are about to have a social interaction in English, think about this question:
Should I use formal, neutral or informal language in this situation?