Language Register

Formal, Informal, and Neutral


Language register is the level and style of your writing. It should be appropriate for the situation you are in.

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The language register determines the vocabulary, structure, and some grammar in your writing.

The three most common language registers in writing are:
  • Formal
  • Informal
  • Neutral
We use different language registers for different types of writing, just as we speak differently to different people. You would not speak to the President of the United States the same way you would talk to your brothers.

To your brother: What's up? It's awesome that you came to visit!

brothers

To the President: Good morning, Mr. President. We appreciate your visit.

presidents

The formal register is more appropriate for professional writing and letters to a boss or a stranger.

The informal register (also called casual or intimate) is conversational and appropriate when writing to friends and people you know very well.

The neutral register is non-emotional and sticks to facts. It is most appropriate for technical writings.

In articles such as these, we tend to mix the formal and informal registers to present the information in an easy to understand and personal tone.

Let's look closely at the three most common language registers used in the English language.

Formal Language Register


Formal writing is probably the most difficult type of writing. It is impersonal, meaning it is not written for a specific person and is written without emotion.

Some kinds of writing are always written in formal English.

Formal writing includes:

  • Business Letterswoman typing
  • Letters of complaint
  • Some essays
  • Reports
  • Official speeches
  • Announcements
  • Professional emails

There are many rules for writing in formal writing. We will discuss some of the most common rules here. When in doubt, check the rules in an APA style guide.

Rules of the informal language register:

1. Do not use contractions

Contractions are not usually used in formal writing, even though they are very common in spoken English.

In formal writing, you should spell out contractions.

Examples:

In formal writing, you should use:
  • cannot instead of can’t

  • have not instead of haven’t

  • will not instead of won’t

  • could not instead of couldn’t

  • is not instead of isn’t

These are just a few examples of contractions. See more contractions by following the contraction link above.

Contractions CAN be used if you are quoting someone’s exact words in your writing.

Example:

“Two-thirds of my eighth grade students can’t read at grade level,” the professor stated.

Keep in mind that an apostrophe does not always make a contraction.

Apostrophes are also added to nouns to show ownership. These are used in all language registers, including formal.

Examples:
  • children’s classroom
  • professor’s report
  • elephant’s trunk

2. Spell out numbers less than one hundred

Examples:
  • nineteen
  • twenty-two
  • seventy-eight
  • six

3. Write in third person point of view

In formal writing, we usually do not use first person or second person unless it is a quote.

Avoid using:
  • I
  • You
  • We
  • Us
Examples:
  • You can purchase a car for under $10,000.

    One can purchase a car for under $10,000.

    OR

    A car can be purchased for under $10,000.

  • You will probably see an elephant on an African safari.

    One may see elephants on an African safari.

    OR

    Elephants are a common sight on African safaris.

  • We decided to invest in the company.

    The group decided to invest in the company.

4. Avoid using too much passive voice

In formal writing it is better to use an active voice.

Passive sentences:
  • The bone was eaten by the dog.

  • The research was completed by the students in 2009.
Active sentences:
  • The dog ate the bone.

  • The students completed the research in 2009. 

    In 2009, the students completed the research.

For example, in a rule above I wrote, “Apostrophes are also added to nouns to show ownership.”

I wrote this sentence in a passive voice.

To make it active, I could write:

“Additionally, add an apostrophe to a noun to show ownership.”

OR

“Use apostrophes with nouns to show ownership.”

5. Avoid using slang, idioms, exaggeration (hyperboles) and clichés

Slang is common in informal writing and spoken English. Slang is particular to a certain region or area.

Examples of slang:
  • awesome/cool
  • okay/ok
  • check it out
  • in a nutshell

A cliché is a phrase that is overused (said too often).

Common clichés:
  • too much of a good thing
  • moment of truth
  • Time is money.
  • Don’t push your luck.
  • Beauty is only skin deep.

6. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms

If you use an acronym or abbreviation, write it out the first time

When using acronyms, write the entire name out the first time it appears, followed by the acronym. From then on, you can use the acronym by itself.

Examples:
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT)

For abbreviations, write the complete word the first time, then use the abbreviation.

Examples:
  • influenza => flu
  • United States of America => U.S.A or USA
  • tablespoon => tbsp.
  • Kansas => KS

Do not use slang abbreviations or symbols that you would use in friendly emails and texts.

Examples:
  • LOL (laugh out loud)
  • ttyl (talk to you later)
  • &
  • b/c (because)
  • w/o (without)
  • w/ (with)

7. Do not start sentences with words like and, so, but, also

Here are some good transition words and phrases to use in formal writing:
  • Nevertheless
  • Additionally
  • However
  • In addition
  • As a result of
  • Although

8. Always write in complete sentences.

9. Write longer, more complex sentences.



Informal Language Register


Informal writing is written in the way we talk to our friends and family. We use informal writing when we are writing to someone we know very well.

Some kinds of writing can be written in an informal style.
man writing
Informal writing includes:

  • Personal e-mails
  • Phone texts
  • Short notes
  • Friendly letters
  • Most blogs
  • Diaries and journals

There are no major rules to informal writing.

With informal writing, you can include things such as:

  • Slang and clichés

  • Figurative language

  • Symbols and abbreviations

  • Acronyms

  • Incomplete sentences

  • Short sentences

  • First person, second person, and third person

  • Paragraphs or no paragraphs

  • Jokes

  • Personal opinions

  • Extra punctuation (Hi Bob!!!!!!!)

  • Passive and active voice

Neutral Language Register


We use the neutral language register with non-emotional topics and information.

Neutral writing is not necessarily formal or informal. It is not usually positive or negative. A neutral register is used to deliver facts.

Some writings are written in a neutral register. This means they are not specifically formal or informal.

Writing in the natural language register includes:
  • Reviews
  • Articles
  • Some letters
  • Some essays
  • Technical writing

These were the types of Language Register. Now that you know them, it is time to practice! Get our ESL Books!

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