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[ESL/EFL] Formal and Informal English
Ninth in a series of English language lessons from Jennifer Lebedev
Jennifer Lebedev (jenesl)     Email Article  Print Article 
  Published 2008-08-13 04:54 (KST)   
Situation No. 1

The standard greeting for everyone is a simple HELLO. If it's early in the morning, you can also greet people with GOOD MORNING. To most Americans GOOD AFTERNOON and GOOD EVENING sound slightly more formal than a simple HELLO.

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Adding titles raises the level of formality:

"Good morning, Mrs. Park."
"Hello, sir."
"Good evening, ma'am."

Now listen to some informal greetings. The difference is not only in the expressions I use but in my intonation. Pay attention to the words AND my voice.

"Hey, Bob! What's up?"
"Hi there! How's it goin'?" [ = How is it going?]
"Morning, Lucy. How ya doin'?" [ = How are you doing?]

The responses to those informal greetings vary. Here are some possible replies:

"What's up?" -- "Not much."
"How's it going?" -- "Not bad. How's everything with you?"
"How ya doin'?" -- "Can't complain. How 'bout you?"

Situation No. 2

When you're making a request, it's best to use a question. No matter what relationship you have with someone, no one likes to be told to do something. Consider these polite requests:

"Would you mind helping me, please?"
OR
"I'm sorry to trouble you, but could you please take a look at this?"

Now listen to less formal requests:

"Hey! Got a minute? Can you come over here?"
OR
"Do me a favor, will you? Can you pick up some milk on your way home?"

Situation No. 3

Voicing a complaint can be a very sensitive issue even with friends. Some people easily take offense. Think about how you would like people to talk to you, and then state your concerns.

When the situation is serious and your relationship with someone is more formal, you might begin like this:

"Can I talk to you for a moment? There's something on my mind, and I'd like to share it with you. "
OR
"Could we talk? I'll be honest. I need to clear the air because something has been troubling me, and I think you sense it, too. "

Even with friends you can still be polite:

"Please don't take this the wrong way, but"
OR
"Don't do that, all right? Call me oversensitive, but that really gets on my nerves."

Only in very informal situations, will you use slang. For example, if your younger brother is tapping his fingers on the table while you're trying to study, you might say: "Cut it out, OK?"

Situation No. 4

In previous lessons, I addressed making suggestions and giving advice, but I didn't explain the nuances of formality. Listen to three different approaches to making a suggestion or offering advice. They'll be examples of formal, standard, and informal English:

"Would you please allow me to make a suggestion? I think it would be best to"
"Can I give you some advice? You really ought to"
"You know what you need to do? You gotta" [= (have) got to]

Situation No. 5

When we get emotional, we can't always stop words from tumbling out of our mouths. Nevertheless, you should know that saying "Cool!" or "Sweet!" is not an appropriate response to receiving good news from your boss or professor.

When something impresses you or delights you in some way, and the situation is rather formal, you can choose to say something like this:

"That's wonderful to hear!"
"That's terrific news. Really."
"That's really quite impressive."

The informal equivalents would be:

"Oh my god! That's great!" (Note: This use of "god" is not religious. It's a standard expression of surprise. When used religiously, use a capital "G": God.)
"Hey! That's good news."
"That's so cool!"

Situation No. 6

GOOD-BYE is standard for everyone. Just as with HELLO, you can use titles to be more formal. Listen to how I can say good-bye two different ways. The first will be more formal, and the second will be less formal:

"Good-bye, Dr. Thompson."
"Bye, John."

Depending on why exactly you're saying good-bye to someone, you may need to add one or two more parting phrases to show greater respect or to emphasize the importance of the situation. For example:

"Good-bye, Dr. Thompson. Thank you for your time."
"It was good to see you, John. Take care. Good-bye."

Now listen to a few informal ways to say good-bye:

"Catch you later. Bye!"
"See you, guys. I'm out of here."
"Take care. Bye!"
"Later, y'all." [ = you all]

As with GOOD MORNING, saying GOOD NIGHT is standard. You can say it to anyone. But do listen to the slight difference in pronunciation as I say it formally and informally:

"Good night, Mr. Wilson."
"G'night, Sam."

- [ESL/ EFL podcast] Formal and Informal English 

©2008 OhmyNews
Jennifer Lebedev is a teacher of English as a second and foreign language with 12 years experience. She has additional experience in teacher training and administration of an IEP and is a published author. Find more of her online English instruction on YouTube under the name "JenniferESL".
Other articles by reporter Jennifer Lebedev

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