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Writing Basics

Formal vs. Informal Language: Choose Your Words Carefully When Addressing Your Audience


Teri Surprenant, Managing Editor, Language Editing

November 2020

It is important to keep your audience in mind as you speak or write. For example, you do not use the same tone of voice or vocabulary with your mentors, family, friends, or business associates. With family and friends, you likely use a casual, light-hearted tone, and your speech is probably sprinkled with slang or abbreviated words. Your speech further changes if you are speaking with a child instead of another adult. You use familiar words to convey your meaning, whether it is a serious message or a playful joke. However, your conversations and interactions are more formal with your mentors or colleagues. For instance, you likely use a more reserved tone. Overall, the type of relationship you have dictates the words you use and how you present your ideas to others.

Use a formal tone and formal language when writing scientific papers

It is important to keep in mind that there are some “words” that have seeped into the English language that are not really words at all. They are simply errors that have been picked up by individuals and incorporated into popular language. I’m not referring to slang words, which come and go as fads typically do. I’m referring to “words” that have slowly become part of the vernacular that are absolutely incorrect, no matter how you use them.

Let’s look at a few examples. There is no such word as “irregardless.” People actually mean “regardless,” as in the following sentence: “We are going to have fun at the picnic regardless of whether the sun is shining or it rains.” Some other “words” that are not words include “til,” which should be “until,” “gonna,” which should be “going to,” “prolly” should be “probably,” “anyways” should simply be “anyway,” and “nother” should be “another.” While it is certainly socially acceptable to use some of these “non-word words” in texting or speaking with your peers, you should use the correct version when you are in serious situations and when writing scientific papers.

Next up is what I call the group of “ofs,” as in: “must of,” “could of,” “would of,” and “should of.” I need to stress that these do not exist in the English language. Some linguists think that the pronunciation of the contraction of “must have,” which is “must’ve,” was altered to sound like “must of” over time and this slowly permeated the language. “Could’ve” led to “could of,” “would’ve” became “would of,” and “should’ve” has been changed to “should’ve.” While contractions, such as the ones mentioned above along with others that include “didn’t,” “wasn’t,” and “won’t,” are fine to use when speaking, but they should not be used in formal papers. These words should be spelled out in full (“did not,” “was not,” and “will not,” for example).

It is better to state a specific amount in a scientific paper than to generalize

Other informal words and phrases include “a lot of” or “a bit of.” Some other vague words that this editor has recently encountered are “bad,” “big,” and “good.” Again, while it is best to be as detailed as possible, depending upon the context of the sentence, you can substitute the words “negative,” “large,” and “useful” or “positive,” respectively, if you absolutely cannot provide a precise quantity. “Stuff” and “things” are two other informal words that should never appear in a scientific paper. They are simply too vague to be of any help to your readers.

Remember, specific is best, and if you are uncertain about your audience, use formal vocabulary words.

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