Not only do we have to learn the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc.. we also need to make sure that we use it appropriately and in the right context.
No peace for the wicked – goes the saying, a constant vigilance in language learning is also required to make sure that we become expert and versatile English users. Selecting the right language for the right situation is important to demonstrate our expertise and to keep us out of hot water!
Consider the following sentences:
- Would you like a cup of coffee?
- Joe – coffee?
- Can I get you a coffee?
Formal, informal and neutral. I’m sure that you can imagine the people to whom each of these should be addressed (boss, friend and someone you don’t know very well).
How about the following scenario?
Your brother has a brand new sports car and you’d like to borrow it. Which would you use.
- Lend me your car will you?
- I was wondering if I might use your car.
- Could I borrow your car?
The first (informal) will probably get the answer ‘no’ (or worse) – remember the car is new and special. The last (neutral) sentence might be more appropriate in this situation. If your brother is unlikely to want to lend then you may need to try the second which is the most formal.
The things to consider are:
- the relationship
- the nature of the request, offer etc..
- how difficult it would be for the person to agree, offer, perform etc..
Here the relationship is very close but the nature of the request is difficult and the person may be reluctant – the car is both new and prized.
When using more formal register there are certain aspects of language that should be avoided. Phrasal verbs are generally too informal, as are idioms. We also usually avoid contractions (can’t, isn’t) particularly in writing. Incomplete sentences are more appropriate in informal settings.
Aspects that do feature in formal language are modal verbs (check out which of these are formal, neutral and informal), passives and latinate words (activate instead of turn on, arrive for turn up etc..).
Don’t confuse register and formal/informal language they are not synonymous. Register denotes the choice of language, whether that be formal or informal, you make to match a given situation.
Have a look at the following sentences and see if you can see where they might have problems:
- Dr Phillips I’d like to introduce you to Professor Smithy. He’s the chap who gave the Key Note Speech at last year’s conference.
- We shall be delighted to accept your invitation and can’t wait to see you on the day.
- Let’s go to the 8 p.m. showing I’ll accompany you at 7.30.
- Sue, don’t forget to extinguish the light when you go to bed!
- Sirs, it is with regret that I write this letter. Last week while shopping in your store, I was dissed by one of your assistants………..
- Go away! I don’t want to converse with you any more!
- Delivery time is usually 2 days but we do endeavour to deliver as soon as the goods arrive in the warehouse.
Did you find the anomalies?
- chap is too informal in this context – repeat Professor Smithy gave …
- can’t wait is too informal – use looking forward to
- pick you up/collect would be more appropriate than accompany (which sounds very stiff) in this very informal context
- extinguish isn’t really necessary here – turn off would be more natural
- Dissed is very informal, spoken to rudely or in a rude manner would be better
- converse isn’t a natural choice here – speak to
- this is a neutral sentence and doesn’t need endeavour, try would be satisfactory
For more practice try this exercise on formal social phrases
Of course once you have mastered the concept of register you can turn it on its head and mix registers for special effects and impacts but that’s for another post!