Black Tie or Blue Jeans? - Formal Versus Informal Language

Mar 04, 2017 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

Clothes make the man. It’s a cliché, but there is truth to that statement. People tend to make judgments based on appearance. However, there is an even more powerful determinant of one’s destiny: language. Most people would agree that the ability to communicate skillfully has a profound impact on our social, educational, and vocational experiences. And the research concurs: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, candidates with strong writing skills were preferred by nearly three-fourths of those surveyed. In its survey the ability to write well was the third most sought-after quality, alongside leadership skills and the ability to work as part of a team.

Team leaders rise to the top because they know how to comfortably communicate with a variety of people in a plethora of situations. Whether giving a formal presentation to shareholders, writing a business proposal, or informally texting with staff, good communicators know how to tailor their words to fit the context, relating to people on their own level. With the rise of the global economy, businesspeople must increasingly be able to adapt their communication style to other cultures and economic groups. Thus, to achieve academic and professional success, students must acquire facility with formal writing and speech.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are notoriously casual in their speech and dress. Our students are no different. So how do we as teachers help students understand the concept of formal and informal styles? One way might be to borrow from other languages. Spanish, for instance, fascinatingly assigns not only gender designations to nouns—angels are male (los angeles), while meadows are female (las vegas)—but also employs formal versus informal language, depending on who and how many persons are being addressed. Thus, “How are you?” can take the familiar form of ¿Cómo estás? as well as the formal plural mouthful of ¿Cómo están ustedes? A little Spanish lesson in your writing class might go a long way towards teaching situational formality.

Once students understand the concept, you can help them develop their repertoire by changing the intended audience of a writing assignment. I once assigned a Unit 4 paper asking students to write a summary of a science chapter on the germination of a seed, but I added a twist. Half of the class was required to write their summaries to the headmaster, and the other half was told to write it at a level suitable for kindergarteners. The ensuing conversation revealed excellent truths. The audience affects vocabulary choice as well as sentence length and structure. Correct usage and spelling matters in both cases. Wisely, the students who wrote for the kindergarteners chose to convey the information with personification in the form of a story. By juxtaposition, the other half used a much more formal style with elevated vocabulary suitable to the audience for whom it was intended.

When you teach this concept, be sure students understand that an informal style, sometimes called conversational, has a place in communication. It can be used when addressing friends, relatives, children, as well as co-workers or social media followers. Did you know that even blog posts are considered informal communication and are best when the style is conversational? The temptation when using informal writing is to become too relaxed—usage and spelling rules get kicked to the curb, and conversations become little more than a stream of abbreviations. It is like wearing your pajamas to Walmart. What’s acceptable for a text message to a peer (private) isn’t okay in an online blog post (public) that may one day be viewed by a college admissions officer. The internet is forever, and job applicants are now routinely asked to provide links to social media websites as part of their screening process. While they expect to find a more relaxed or “kindergarten narrative” style, they still want to find proper spelling and grammar. Too often, though, what they find is a relaxed presence that borders on inappropriate with haphazard punctuation, missing capitalization, and lazy spelling.

The formal address is reserved for situations calling for a polite show of respect, such as the elderly and authority figures, or in academic and professional settings. In order to acquire facility with formal language, students need to hear, read, and write formal language. Informal usage comes naturally. Like learning the third-person point of view, formal language doesn't come naturally; it must be practiced. Because most of your writing assignments are academic, and you are preparing your students for future academic and professional settings, it is tempting to make all of your assignments formal. Resist the temptation to overcompensate and ignore the opportunity to develop their informal style.

Challenge your students by adapting the same writing assignment to different audiences similar to my above illustration, or create writing assignments that will require both styles. Share the results out loud. In this way, we help our students learn how to appropriately communicate with their intended audience. It is vital that we teach our students how to recognize what a situation calls for and adapt to it.
By building this knowledge of situational style into our students’ linguistic repertoire, we help them become competent and confident communicators in their future academic, professional, and personal environments. Because as Andrew Pudewa explains, style affects people’s perceptions. In other words, it’s good and right to wear a T-shirt and jeans to the game, but you need that suit and tie when you go on that job interview!

Janet Spitler, IEW's Schools Division Director, heads up our efforts to support full-time schools with ongoing training, teacher mentoring, telephone contact, and classroom-specific materials. With abundant classroom experience, Janet shares her experience of building a linguistically rich environment to develop a love for language and a community of learners. While she cherishes the time she spent influencing students and parents, today she applies that same dedication to the classroom teachers who use this method. She is accredited as an IEW® Instructor at the highest level.

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