How to Avoid Colloquial Language
How to Avoid Colloquial (Informal) Writing
When speaking with family or friends, we often feel most comfortable using informal, familiar language. For instance, if a friend were to ask you, "Where are you going?", you probably would not answer, "I am going to the beach." In casual conversation, we often use sentence fragments and contractions to save time. During a conversation, we are also unable to stop what we are doing to look up facts and statistics, so we might use imprecise words such as "a lot," "okay," and "et cetera." We may find ourselves using slang, colloquialisms, and vague or unclear words when talking with our friends and family, but formal writing requires precise, unambiguous language.
The Difference Between Formal and Informal English
Understand the difference between formal and informal English.Formal and informal writing are intended for different audiences. For instance, an informal letter written to a friend seeks to create a friendly, conversational tone and may use contractions (e.g., "don't," "we'll," and "let's"), slang (e.g., "awesome" or "cool"), and informal grammar (e.g., "It's me, Susan" or "Who did you vote for yesterday?"). By contrast, a formal letter written to an employer should be free of colloquialisms and use proper grammar and punctuation. Formal and informal English differ in diction and grammatical structures. Informal English may include colloquialisms such as "contraption," "fire," "kid," "how come," and "quote" as a noun. A formal writer might prefer "device," "dismiss," "child," "why," and "quotation." Informal writing may sound more like conversation, whereas formal writing may be more polished. An informal style may make listeners feel more comfortable when you are speaking, but a formal writing style can make a good impression.
Part 1 Quiz
What is the difference between formal and informal writing?
What to Avoid in Formal Writing
Use appropriate punctuation.For example, American English employs colons in formal letters, such as in “Dear John:”, but British English employs commas.Limit parentheses, exclamation points, and dashes (prefer colons) in formal writing. Avoid the ampersand (&); write out the word “and.” Punctuate your writing as you go along to reduce your risk of leaving out punctuation.
Avoid common colloquial words and expressions (colloquialisms), such as "cute" (use "adorable"), "yeah" (use "yes"), "how-do-you-do," and "movie" (use "film"), as listed below or labeled as such in your dictionary.This includes slang such as "cool," "dude," and "humongous" as well as short forms such as "TV," "phone," and "fridge." Two good phrases to delete are "you know" and “you might be thinking.” You do not have the power to know your readers’ thoughts while they read your paper. Another empty sentence is “Think about it.” Assume that your readers are already thinking about what they are reading, and state your point more clearly. The adverb “pretty,” meaning “relatively," "fairly," or "quite,” is unacceptable in formal writing and is often unnecessary.
Delete emotion or opinion words.Formal writing should be as objective as possible. Try to present a fair, balanced view of the issue on which you are writing. Note that "balanced" does not necessarily mean devoting equal amounts of space to each side, since one side may be much stronger than the other. This also means limiting first- and second-person pronouns. The use of "you" and "your" can sometimes make your writing seem too personal or even emotional. Avoid writing "We should all..." because when we use this phrase, we assume that everyone will act in the same way. Another phrase to avoid is "I think that..."; instead provide compelling reasons for why you think so. Also avoid saying that you like or love anything; instead focus on the reasons why you love it. Instead of writing "I loveOsmosis Jonesbecause it teaches children about the human body," you could write, "Osmosis Jonesis a powerful teaching tool that shows children how the human body works."
Avoid to be formal.Formal writing tries to use literal language that will not be misunderstood by any of the readers. Clichés can make your writing unoriginal, but they can sometimes be fun in casual writing, especially as an original play-on-words called an anti-cliché. Here are some clichés to avoid in formal writing:
- Hercules wasas strong as an ox.
- I have to givean arm and a legto find a parking spot during the holiday season.
- It wasas pretty as a picture.
Avoid stage directions.Do not commence a letter by telling the recipient what you plan to do in the letter or begin an essay by telling the reader what the paper will discuss.
- "I am writing to you to ask you to. . . ."
- "This paper is going to talk about how. . . ."
Avoid vague words such as "good," "bad," and "nice." Consider using more vivid words such as "beneficial," "deleterious," and "pleasant." Do not end a list with "etc." or "et cetera" in formal writing. If those extra examples that you did not list are important enough that you felt the need to write "et cetera," you may want to consider including them. Eliminate words such as "a few" or "enough" and discuss precise numbers and quantities.
- If you try using a thesaurus to find precise words, ensure that you thoroughly understand how to use the words. There is no use in using precise words if you do not use them correctly!
Avoid phrasal verbs such as "put up with" or "make up." Instead, choose strong verbs such as "tolerate" or "compose."
Use proper grammar.In particular, check your use of pronouns, such as "I" and "me" and "who" and "whom." Make sure that all of your verbs agree with their subjects. A common mistake is to use a plural verb when a single verb is needed: "A group of these voters is [not 'are'] concerned about global warming." Look for dangling participles (e.g., "Shaded by a palm tree, the waiter brought me a tropical drink"), split infinitives (e.g., "to boldly go"), and terminal prepositions (e.g., "Whom did you send the letter to?"). Avoid starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as "and" or "but"; use other types of transitions instead.
Always include the relative pronoun in formal writing.You can also rephrase the sentence to remove the pronoun. Be sure to use "that" for things and "whom" for people (since this relative pronoun will always be the object).
- "This is the poem John wrote."
- "This is the poem that John wrote.", or "John wrote this poem".
- "These are the people we love most."
- "These are the people whom we love most.", or "We love these people the most".
Develop short, choppy sentences into longer, more graceful sentences.Formal writing generally uses longer sentences: compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. You can develop two or more simple sentences into one of the previously listed sentence structures. Long sentences add variety to your writing and can be particularly effective when paired with short sentences; the contrast grabs the reader's attention. As the last sentence shows, you also can use a semicolon to join two simple sentences, provided that they are closely related to each other.
Part 2 Quiz
True or False: Formal writing should not include cliches.
QuestionWhy should I use commas in an essay?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerCommas in essay are necessary to separate adjectives or other items, accentuate a break in the sentence, or divide sentence for independent judgments.Thanks!
QuestionCan "let's not forget" be used in formal writing?Top Answerer"Let's not" is not an especially formal phrase. "We should not" might be more appropriate.Thanks!
QuestionHow do I make the phrase "stands out above the rest" more formal?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerWrite it as: "stands above the rest"; there is no need for the "out".Thanks!
QuestionIs ''will do so,'' as in "Sure, I will do so," considered formal?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerYes. A colloquial equivalent would be a truncated form of that: "Sure, will do," or perhaps, "Yep, I'll do that."Thanks!
QuestionWhy is "such" not a good word to use?Top AnswererIt is sometimes a very good word to use, but like anything, you don't want to overuse it.Thanks!
QuestionHow should I rephrase the statement "Ethan's wife's cousin"?Top AnswererIt's OK as it stands, or you could say, "the cousin of Ethan's wife."Thanks!
QuestionWhat is the difference between the use of "am" and "I am" in writing?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt would most likely be somewhat dependent on the context of the rest of the sentence. From what you have provided, the use of "am" without the "I" is suggestive of informal language, as in "am so pleased to chat with you". If you wish to be formal and accurate, you would say: "I am so pleased to chat with you."Thanks!
QuestionWhy should I avoid stage direction?Top AnswererUse it when writing a play. Otherwise, it's rarely necessary.Thanks!
QuestionShould I start a formal writing with however?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerI wouldn't start a formal writing with however. I would use this word as the beginning of the next (second, third) paragraph, because of the meaning of "however". This is the way to present the opposite opinion that was presented in the first paragraph.Thanks!
QuestionWhat is the difference of "you and I" vs. "you and me?"Top Answerer"You and I" is used in the nominative case as the subjects of a verb. "You and me" is used in the objective case as the objects of a verb or a preposition.Thanks!
To avoid informal writing, make sure you aren't using any contractions in your paper, for instance by using "did not" instead of "didn't." Additionally, remove any personal pronouns or emotional words like "I think," "Your," and "we should all." Instead, try to give reasons to back up your argument, for example by writing "Osmosis Jones is a powerful teaching tool because..." Combine this with formal language instead of slang, for example by writing "film" rather than "movie," and remember to stick to correct punctuation.
Common Colloquial Words and Expressions
Also see How to Use Commonly Misused Words and “Nonstandard and Questionable Usage” in How to Learn Perfect English As a Native English Speaker.
- Anybody, anyone- "Anyone" and its variants are more formal than "anybody" and its variants.
- I didn't see anybody.
- I saw no one.
- As- “As” is often used in formal writing to mean “because.”Placing a comma before “as” can help prevent ambiguity when it could also be understood to mean “when” or “where.”
- Big, large, great- All three of these words are acceptable in formal English, but "large" is more formal than "big," and "great" is more formal than "large."
- Fellow- Avoid using "fellow" when you mean "a person." Calling someone a fellow is more formal than calling him or her a dude, but "fellow" is still a colloquialism.
- For sure- Replace "for sure" with "with certainty" in formal writing, as in "I know with certainty." You might also write, "I am positive" or "I am sure."
- Get- Avoid all forms of this verb in formal writing.
- I got an A in the course.
- I received an A in the course.
- She didn’t get the joke.
- She did not understand the joke.
- The machine never gets used.
- The machine is never used.
- Got- "Got" is a colloquialism. Replace it with "have," as in "Do you have [not "got"] an extra pen?"
- Introduce, present- "Present" is more formal than "introduce." It is also more respectful to the person presented.
- The queen was introduced. . . .
- The queen was presented. . . .
- Kind of, sort of- "Kind of" and "sort of" are unacceptable in formal writing when used for "somewhat" and "rather." When used to categorize something, "kind of" and "sort of" are acceptable, but "type of" is more formal: "The parakeet is a type of bird." Note that it is informal to include an article after "of": "The parakeet is a type ofabird."
- Let- When used in place of "allow" or "permit," "let" is a colloquialism.
Like- In formal writing, do not use "like" when "as," "as though," or "such as" is needed.
- The large family decorated their Christmas tree the night before Christmas, like they had done for many years.
- The large family decorated their Christmas tree the night before Christmas, as they had done for many years.
- It looked like the ballerina was about to fall.
- It looked as though the ballerina were about to fall.
- Some English phrases like "vice versa" come from the Latin.
- Some English phrases such as "vice versa" come from the Latin.
- Madam, ma’am- Both "madam" and "ma’am" are very polite forms of address, but "ma’am" is unacceptable in formal English.
- Most- In formal English, do not use "most" for "almost." You should write, "Almost everyone likes pizza," not "Most everyone likes pizza."
- Nowadays- Prefer "today" in formal writing.
- On the other hand- "On the other hand" is a very common phrase, but can be considered a clichéand should, therefore, be avoided in extremely formal English. Instead, use "conversely" or "by contrast."
- So- In extremely formal writing, avoid using "so" as a synonym for "very" or as a coordinating conjunction. Sometimes, you need the conjunction "that" after "so."
- Thus, thusly- "Thusly" is not a proper word. Use "thus."
The reason...is becauseAvoid this redundant phrase. The proper version is "the reason...is that," but first consider writing a more concise, direct sentence.
- The reason we give to charity is because....
- The reason we give to charity is that....
- We give to charity because....
An informal letter:
John, I’m looking for a job, and I’ve heard through the grapevine that you need a workhorse for your shop. Well, I’m the man of the hour, as I’ve got a lot to offer. I’m pretty hard-working, and I’m really good about being on time. I’m also used to working by myself. Anyway, tell me whether you want to get together for an interview, okay?
A formal, professional letter: Dear John: I understand that you are looking for a strong worker to assist you in your shop. I would appreciate consideration because I am diligent, punctual, and accustomed to working with minimal supervision.
Please contact me if you are interested in arranging an interview. I thank you for your time.
- Formal writing, like formal dress, is appropriate in some situations but would seem out of place or even ridiculous in other situations. Be sure that your writing is appropriate for your audience, and always try to write something that readers will enjoy.
- Remember, be careful when looking for new words in the thesaurus. Some words carry connotations that a thesaurus does not explain. The word "juvenile," for instance, may carry connotations of immaturity, whereas the word "young" does not. Be sure that you have used all words correctly and appropriately.
Sources and Citations
- Eli Hinkel. Second Language Writers' Text: Linguistic and Rhetorical Features. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. Page 134.
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