Learn English: What's the difference between formal and informal writing?

Has anyone ever said to you, “Hey, your chat messages sound so formal” or “Your letter is too informal”? And you end up scratching your head wondering, what they meant by that. Don’t worry, today we’re going to help you differentiate the two types of writing and guide you to know which to use and when.

Formal Writing

Let us start with ‘Formal writing’, think of it as English smartly dressed in a suit that you’ll be using to apply for a job, write a proposal or your thesis for university.

You can say that formal writing is more serious, has longer and complex sentences and is often more objective; you use less emotion in this form of writing.

Formal writing uses a passive voice and the third-person point of view, how does that work? Well, put yourself in the shoes of a narrator, telling a story when you’re writing.

For example, when explaining the results in a graph, you would usually say, “My team & I carried out a survey and found that 60% of our respondents would rather take up an English course online than go to a class.” But in a passive voice and third-person point of view, it would sound like this “60% of the respondents would rather take up an English course online than go to a class, based on the survey that was carried out.”

Formal writing may seem a bit stiff and difficult due to the many points in writing you have to remember but once you understand the idea of how ‘Formal Writing’ works, it’ll be a piece of cake.

Informal Writing

Now, what about informal writing. How does that work? It’s actually no different to how you communicate with people you know well or what you read in blogs.

Compared to formal writing, it’s more relaxed and you can use more *contractions such as “They’re”, “We’re”, “I’m” instead of “They are”, “We are”, “I am”. You can have shorter and simpler sentences in this form of writing and your tone of writing has a more personal and friendly touch to it.

*Contractions – a shortened form of a word (or group of words) that removes certain letters or sounds. An apostrophe often replaces the missing letter. For example, I am = I’m, you are = you’re, he is = he’s.

Informal writing uses an active voice and the first and second-person point of view. You’ve seen how the third-person point of view is like, what about the first and second?

First-person point of view

The first-person point of view is just like how we talk to people in real life, where we use words such as “I”, “me”, “my”, “we”, “us”, “our” but this time in our writing. Most stories and novels are written in the first-person point of view where you are in the character’s shoes, watching the story unfold through their eyes.

Second-person point of view

In the second-person point of view, your writing is used to address the audience. How is it different to the first-person? Just like how this blog is written, words you would often see used are ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘yours’, ‘yourself’ and ‘yourselves’. You would often see this style of writing in instructional notices, recipe books, ‘How to’ books etc.

How do I know when to use formal writing or informal writing?

Now that you’ve seen the difference between the first, second and third-person point of views, let’s go into when to use formal or informal writing.

If you’re writing a cover letter to apply for a job or if you’re writing an e-mail to a client, you’d want to look and sound professional. This is where you use formal writing, as you’re most likely writing to someone you don’t know well and you’ll be expected be clear with the things you write and also to sound objective – keeping your emotions in check.

What about informal writing? Well, from a WhatsApp message to a Facebook status, we use informal writing every day. Best suited when you are communicating with your family, friends and acquaintances plus if your discussions are not very serious, you could also use this style of writing.

Using formal writing isn’t necessarily better than using informal writing but each style serves a different function, your audience and purpose should be taken into consideration when choosing which style to use.

As a recap to our blog post today, click here to participate in our short exercise.



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