Communication, Email Writing, Writing

Formal vs. Informal Writing: What’s the Difference?

You may have noticed some new features at TextRanch lately. In place of our old menu of options, you can now choose either “Formal” or “Informal”. This tells your editor about the tone of your email, paper, or document, and what kinds of changes you are expecting.

Therefore, this is a good time to look at how formal writing is different from informal writing and how they are used.

What is formal writing?

Formal writing is also known as professional writing. It is what we use for cover letters, thank-you letters, scholarly papers, legal documents, business reports, certain kinds of invitations, or any correspondence with a person in a high position, such as the head of a company or a political leader.

The following are some of the characteristics of formal writing:

  • The vocabulary and sentence structure are more complex. The sentences are full, complete, and often lengthy (especially in academic writing). You might also see a lot of jargon (again, especially in academic writing). In terms of grammar and spelling, everything is expected to be written correctly.
  • Letters and emails start with a formal greeting and end with an appropriate closing line and salutation.
  • Instead of using contractions, such as “didn’t” or “here’s”, words are usually written in their full form (e.g., “did not” or “here is”).
  • Slang, emojis, “text talk”, or social media style abbreviations are not used in formal writing.
  • The tone can seem stiff and distant. Formal texts don’t show strong emotions of any kind. The emphasis is on conveying information in a polite, objective manner rather than on expressing one’s feelings.

Okay, then, what about informal writing?

Informal writing can best be described as everyday spoken English that has been written down. This is what we use when we send emails, letters, or text messages to family and friends as well as when we post on social media. Authors of popular contemporary fiction use it when they write dialogue. If you’ve ever read a script for a movie, TV show, or play, the characters are probably speaking to each other informally.

Unlike formal writing, informal writing can be quite emotional. Love letters, angry rants on social media, and heartfelt tributes to lost pets are all examples of highly emotional informal writing.

Informal writing doesn’t always strictly follow the rules of grammar. You might see incomplete sentences, slang, abbreviations, profanity, “text talk” (e.g. “ur my bestie”), or words such as “ain’t”, “wanna”, “gonna”, and “y’all”. The sentences and vocabulary of informal texts tend to be less complex. You will also see more contractions.

What about “business casual” English?

If you read this blog on a regular basis, sometimes you’ll see the term “business casual”. Is this formal or informal?

Overall, “business casual” is formal, since it is used in the workplace. However, it has a more friendly, relaxed tone than highly formal writing. You will see more contractions, and perhaps an occasional incomplete sentence. For the most part, though, the grammar and spelling are correct and it is considered inappropriate to use profanity, slang, or any other language that would be considered unprofessional or inappropriate in the workplace. “Business casual” is the tone used for popular magazines and websites as well as for most blogs (including this one).

Let’s look at some examples…

Let’s say you want to write an email to someone and tell them that you can’t have lunch with them. The following examples all express this same idea, but in tones ranging from highly formal to very informal.

Formal: I regret to inform you that I am unavailable for lunch this afternoon.

Business Casual: I am sorry, but I can’t have lunch with you this afternoon.

Informal: Sorry, but I can’t do lunch today.

Very Informal: Ain’t gonna make it to lunch, bro.

Surprisingly, informal English is usually more difficult for non-native speakers to master. With formal English, you learn the rules (as well as the exceptions to those rules) and then you follow them. Adhering to a set of rules also makes it easier to identify and fix mistakes. Because the rules of informal English tend to be “fuzzy” rather than set in stone—and because informal English is constantly changing—it takes longer for non-native speakers to “get the hang of it”.

If you want a human editor to make sure your writing is formal (or informal) enough for your particular purpose, click the blue box below. Be sure to leave a note for your editor so that they are aware of how formal (or informal) your email or document needs to be. Your editor can only make the right suggestions if they understand the specific context of your situation.

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2 Replies to Formal vs. Informal Writing: What’s the Difference?

  1. I am learning from your articles. Thank you so much. All these years of writing with confusions, you have helped me to unlock my puzzles one by one. E g the In and at. Thank you again.

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