In the case of speaking, formal English is usually only used for official or serious occasions, e.g., to formally welcome guests at a university graduation ceremony.
Formal English uses more complex vocabulary than everyday speech. For example, it uses many “bigger” words that aren’t normally used in conversation. Examples are multi-syllable words like compensate, ascend and interrogate. It also prefers one-part verbs (e.g., establish) instead of simpler, phrasal verbs (e.g., set up). Slang and colloquial vocabulary are avoided.
When formal English is used in writing, sentences tend to be long and complex, and grammar rules are followed strictly. It tends to be impersonal (or neutral), often using impersonal pronouns like it and passive verbs. Contracted and abbreviated forms of words are usually avoided.
Rules of Formal Writing
There are certain things that can be done in spoken English or in written English in newspapers, magazines, or lecture notes or web pages which are not appropriate for formal writing.
Formal English follow rules of grammar very strictly. Sentences tend to be longer and more complex. The vocabulary tends to be elevated, using big words and avoiding colloquial or slang vocabulary. It avoids split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.
In formal English you have to be aware of the followings:
- Don't start a sentence with 'And', 'Also', 'But', 'So', 'Or', 'Even so'. Instead use 'In addition', 'However', 'Hence', 'Consequently', 'Alternatively', 'Nevertheless'.
- Don't start a sentence with 'Therefore'. Instead write, for example, 'We therefore...'.
- Don't start a sentence with 'Then' or 'Now' unless it is a command.
- Don't use 'don't', or any other shortened negative such as 'isn't', 'hasn't', 'wasn't', etc. Use 'does not', 'is not', etc. instead.
- Don't use '!' or '&' or '/'. It is also very unusual to see '?' in a paper. Don't put questions in a paper unless you really know what you are doing.
- Don't use e.g. or i.e. or etc.
- When referring to the number of countable objects, use words rather than figures when the amount is less than twenty. E.g. Don't write "we used 3 methods'' - instead write "we used three methods''.
- Don't use 'OK'. Use 'acceptably', 'permissible', 'satisfactory', etc instead.
- Don't use 'got'. Instead use 'obtained'.
- If you can, try to use the passive voice for some of the time when describing your results. Using 'we' in every sentence is a bit boring.
- List things properly using 'and' between the last two items. E.g. Don't do 'we used three methods A, B, C.' Instead you should write either 'we used three methods: A, B, and C.' or 'we used three methods, namely, A, B, and C.'
- You cannot have a paragraph that is just one sentence.
Tips for Vocabulary for Academic Essays...
- Use a more formal one-word verb if it sounds more appropriate than its phrasal verb equivalent.
- Avoid using a personal or conversational style. Therefore, try not to use words like I, me, my, you, we, us and our. Though these words are widely used in informal writing and in spoken English, they’re generally thought to be too personal and too casual for formal, academic writing.
- Avoid words or phrases used mainly in normal conversation as they’re usually not suitable for use in academic writing. Dictionaries often identify these words with the label “informal.” In your essay, use a more formal equivalent. Here are some examples:
Avoid "kids", use "children",
Avoid "a lot of", use "much, many"
- Never use colloquial English or slang. Colloquial English is a type of informal English, and it includes words such as gonna or wanna, and phrases such as ain’t nothin’ and dead as a doornail. Dictionaries usually mark colloquial words and phrases with a label like “colloq.” Because colloquial English and slang are usually spoken rather than written, they’ll make your academic writing sound too conversational and so less credible.
- Although it’s usual to contract words in spoken and informal written English (e.g., can’t, won’t, shouldn’t and hasn’t), it’s better to avoid using any contractions in your academic essay.
- Avoid abbreviating words in academic writing. Don’t say yrs, e.g. (which stands for the original Latin exempli gratia and means “for example”) or i.e. (which stands for the original Latin id est and means “that is”). Instead, write the words in full using their English equivalents (years, for example and that is).
It’s usually easy to decide if a word is informal or formal. Informal words are those common, ordinary and familiar words that people use every day, whereas formal words tend to be the more “serious” and less frequently used words. Often, formal words are longer than informal words. Single-word verbs are also usually more formal than their phrasal verb equivalents.
For instance, saying something is enormous is formal, but saying it’s whopping is informal. Phrases like on the one hand or as indicated above are formal, but phrases like by the way or that reminds me are informal. Note that some informal words are more formal than other informal words. The informal verb understand, for example, is more formal than the informal verb get. However, both are less formal than the formal verb comprehend.