More than just semantics: Words signal relationships.
As discussed in the power & solidarity module, formal language distances you from other people, sending the message that you do not wish to interact on a personal level, while using informal language is an appeal to solidarity. If you have been having trouble connecting with people, we recommend that you try to introduce some more informality into your speech, both in your word choices and in your pronunciations (sounds). This does not mean that you “talk down” to people or assume that they are any less intelligent than you – it is simply a recognizable signal that you are being friendly.
The key to successful interaction (as usual) is monitoring those around you. If you are interacting with friends and/or equals, your level of formality should match (mirror) theirs, and perhaps be proactively less formal, to try to encourage a closer relationship.
If you are interacting with someone who has power over you, and your language use is significantly less formal than theirs, you may seem disrespectful, assuming too much familiarity, challenging their authority. But if they become progressively less formal, you should interpret this as a sign of growing closeness, and reciprocate! (If you do not, you may find that they interpret your continued formality as a sign that you do not wish to be close, and so progressively become more formal again.)
If you are interacting with someone subordinate to you (e.g., your employee or your student), they will likely be quite formal with you at first, to show proper deference, but if you continue to sound very formal in return, they will assume that you do not wish to be friendly. (They might think it’s up to you, the superior, to initiate a more friendly relationship.)
Formal vs. Informal Vocabulary
Just about every major publisher has some kind of “writer’s manual” or “usage manual” that discusses the issue of word choice. Most of them are simply prescriptive, telling you what informal words and phrases to avoid in formal, academic writing. Most take an encyclopedic approach, listing page after page of vocabulary items, and we have not attempted to reduplicate their efforts here. Rather, we seek to try to explain the distinctions, how they are perceived, and the social consequences of those perceptions. NOTE that “informal” is not the same as “slang” or taboo (“bad”) language (for more about both of which, see below).
Germanic vs. Latinate vocabulary
Of course, most people have never studied the history of the language, and couldn’t tell you which words come from which sources. But the Germanic-based vocabulary just feels more comfortable to most people (since these are the words they first learned, the words associated with the warmth of childhood, mothers, homes, and hearts). Compare Germanic build with Latinate construct, Germanic need with Latinate require, teach vs. educate, dog vs. canine, e.g. We could go on all day. Essentially, English has two separate, redundant sets of vocabulary. Most people use a combination, not all one, not all the other, turning up or down the “formality” dial by using more or less Latinate vocabulary as the situation warrants.
Linguists have shown that speakers using mostly Germanic vocabulary were perceived as significantly “more flexible” and “more likely to help you out of a jam” than speakers who expressed the same ideas using mostly Latinate vocabulary. They concluded that “speakers’ use of a formal style through Latinate words does not appear to endear them to their audience” (Levin, Giles & Garrett, 1994). (Ironically, of course, since they are writing for a professional journal, they use a disproportionate amount of Latinate vocabulary themselves!) Someone who always sounds like a textbook or a professor seems to care more about being correct and sounding intelligent than about connecting with other people. So while juvenile and immature (Latinate), childish and childlike (Germanic) may all have roughly the same semantics (in some contexts, at least), the “conceptual baggage” that they carry (in terms of how the speaker sees themselves and how they see the relationship with the people spoken to) is quite distinct, resulting in different social judgments from listeners.
Do you at least get the reward of sounding more intelligent and competent when you use formal vocabulary? Nath (2007) found that people who use “a lot” of formal terms are perceived as more competent (although she wasn’t using the Latinate/Germanic distinction to determine formality, relying instead on speaker judgments), but Levin and his colleagues did not find the same effect. This odd result actually makes sense, because the Levin script turned up the formality dial as far as it would go – using Latinate vocabulary everywhere they could. It seems perfectly logical that the negative social effect of being perceived as pompous or pretentious would counteract the demonstration of competence: if you overdo the fancy vocabulary, people may think you’re insecure about your intelligence (because you seem to be trying to impress), and so may actually doubt your competence!
Word Length, Prefixes & Suffixes
Some people may tell you that it comes down to “big words” vs. “short words,” but it’s actually rather tricky to disentangle the question of length from the question of word origins. You may have noticed that the Germanic words do tend to be shorter than their Latinate counterparts. Those examples were all fairly “basic” terms, not longer words built up from shorter ones. Many of our more complex formations do, of course, sound formal, but that may be because many common prefixes and suffixes (re-, con-, dis-, -ment, -ive, -(a)tion, etc.) are Latinate, and/or are attaching to Latinate roots. Enjoy and appreciate feel more formal than like, but do enjoyment and appreciation feel even more formal? (Not to our ears.) Misinformed seems much more formal than wrong, but is that due to length and complexity or because wrong is Germanic, while inform is Latinate? Childishness and craftsmanship are fairly lengthy words, but they feel informal, since all their parts are Germanic.
Still, if you don’t have “an ear” for what sounds less formal, word-length is an easier tool to use as a diagnostic, and would help you to avoid a great deal of the Latinate vocabulary.
Technical, Professional Jargon
It is important within the profession to be able to wield this terminology competently. (I would not trust the competence of a doctor who did not know the technical names of diseases, medications, medical instruments, and the like. I wouldn’t trust a lawyer who didn’t know all the legal terms, etc.) So for two (or more) professionals in the same field, using the associated terminology with each other is expected and has no social consequences. (Avoiding the terminology in those situations would be weird.) Of course, if you are not an expert in the field and you are talking to people who are, go ahead and use the terminology, if you know it! Even if you use it less-than-perfectly, you will show a desire to connect with them.
But as much as I want the professionals to know the specialized vocabulary, I do not necessarily want them to use it when speaking with me, because I won’t understand it. Many listeners will be too embarrassed to ask for explanations, and will resent the speaker for placing them in this situation. They also feel that the specialist is using formal language to maintain distance, to discourage a friendlier connection. (There’s been a tremendous amount of research on doctor-patient communication in the last couple of decades, because they found actual differences in patient outcomes, including mortality rates! Doctors who appear to push their patients away don’t get the information they need to make good diagnoses, and don’t build up the trust that results in patients following their suggestions, etc. Many medical schools now require students to take communication courses, as a result.)
Fortunately, there is a way for specialists to be both formal and informal at the same time, to both demonstrate their expertise by using technical language and use less formal language to better communicate and connect with nonspecialists, and that is the instant paraphrase. E.g., a doctor might refer to “atherosclerosis – you know, thickening of the arteries, when cholesterol builds up in there and the arteries get all stiff, it can really mess up your circulation, your blood pressure….” A computer tech support person might say, “Well, we could try a new SCSI cable – that’s this bit here that connects your computer to your scanner – to see if that’s the problem.” You don’t insult the listener’s intelligence by avoiding the technical vocabulary, but you don’t assume they know it, either. You don’t make a point of explaining (you wouldn’t say “let me tell you what that means….” or “you’re probably not familiar with that term, so let me explain”), because that might be insulting – you just do it offhandedly, in passing. You gain credibility by using the technical terms, but you also achieve greater connectedness with your listeners by using informal language to explain it.
Phrasal Verbs and Idioms
Phrasal verbs are two-part (or even three-part) verbs that are made of a simple verb and a “particle” (or two), such as work out for exercise, put up with for tolerate, put down for insult, etc. (Particles look like prepositions, but do not serve the same function in a sentence.) These feel informal to us, even when they are actually longer or more complex than the one-word verbs they replace, such as step down (for resign), throw up (for vomit), pass out (for faint), etc. This may be partly due to the fact that the root verbs within the phrasal constructions are often Germanic, but it is likely also due to the idiomatic nature of these phrases: the meaning of the sum cannot be predicted from the meaning of its parts. There is no throwing involved in throwing up, no blowing in blowing up (exploding), etc. Idioms in general, of course, like salt of the earth (to describe a decent, unpretentious person) or face the music (meaning to accept negative consequences for a misdeed) are considered “folksy,” and therefore informal. Both phrasal verbs and idioms are generally avoided in formal, academic writing – but are perfect for friendly conversation!
Instead of carefully separating each and every word, informal speech will contract auxiliary forms of “have,” “be” and “would” in present and future tense: I’m, you’ll, we’d, they’ve, he’s, etc. You might consider this more of a pronunciation feature than a word choice per se (and we do, redundantly, discuss this in the sounds section as well), but we do contrast contracted and full forms in writing, too. If you’re trying to turn up or down the formality dial, decreasing or increasing the number of contractions you use can be an easy fix. In a fascinating study, Yaeger-Dror (1997) found that people were more likely to contract “not” when speaking in a more interpersonal, friendly way (to avoid apparent disagreements) and more likely to contract the auxiliary verb (or not use contraction at all) when speaking in a more informational way. So, you’d say “We are not…” or “We have not…” in a very formal professional presentation, “We’re not…” or “We’ve not…” in a less formal but still mostly informational presentation, but you’d say “We aren’t….” or “We haven’t….” when talking to a friend.
Some Specific Words to Watch Out For
Who vs. Whom
“BE” vs. “GOT” passives
Generic (ungendered) pronouns
Because English doesn’t have an animate 3rd person gender-neutral pronoun, people don’t know how to refer back to generic noun phrases such as “a student.” (It, of course, is 3rd person singular, but refers mainly to inanimate objects and ideas, and is not appropriate for referring to humans.) You’d be surprised how often the need for a generic pronoun comes up in everyday conversations, so your choice of pronoun is likely to be noticed and interpreted socially.
(So-called) “generic he” is very much dispreferred these days; use of this even in formal speech (like whom) marks you as out-of-date and out-of-touch, conservative to the point of being inflexible, more concerned with historical precedent than with current social attitudes. (Not a good recipe for social connection.) Saying “he or she” is better but feels very formal. If you wish to be less formal, you can use singular “they” (as we have done throughout this website). This is, of course, prescriptively an error in number agreement, and many people will respond to it negatively in writing and in formal speech, but it is so common in informal speech that it will pass unnoticed. Likewise, “you” functions as an informal generic. (We’ve used that one, too, quite often in these pages.) It does not have to refer to the actual addressee, but can be a hypothetical you. (If you are a student, you….)
Some people will tell you that this is all “political correctness” and therefore nonsense, but it’s not: “He or she,” “they” and “you” are all gender-neutral, so there’s no reason politically to prefer one over the other — they simply have different “feels” to them. Avoiding “he” as a generic may have been, at one time, associated with feminism, but paying attention to how others feel and avoiding giving offense is social, not political, and if you don’t want to be more social, what are you doing here?
- Holtgraves, Thomas. (1999) Social Psychology and Language: Words, Utterances, and Conversations. In Susan T. Fiske, Daniel T. Gilbert, & Gardner Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 1. John Wiley & Sons.
- Jay, Timothy. (1992). Cursing in America: A psycholinguistic study of dirty language in the courts, in the movies, in the schoolyards and on the streets. John Benjamins.
- Judd, Elliot & Wolfson, Nessa. (1983). Sociolinguistics and Language Acquisition. Newbury House.
- Levin, Harry, Howard Giles & Peter Garrett. (1994). The effects of lexical formality and accent on trait attributions. Language & Communication 14(3): 265-274.;
- McConnell-Ginet, Sally. (2008). Words in the world: How and why meanings can matter. Language 84 (3): 497-527.
- McCumber, Vanessa. (2010). -s: The latest slang suffix, for reals. Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle 20(1): 124-130. http://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/WPLC/article/download/5676/2202
- Nath, Leda E. (2007). Expectation states: Are formal words a status cue for competence? Current Research in Social Psychology 13(5): 50-63.
- Roter, Debra & Judith A. Hall. (2006). Doctors Talking with Patients/Patients Talking with Doctors: Improving Communication in Medical Visits. 2nd Ed. Praeger.
- Yaeger-Dror, Malcah. (1997). Contraction of negatives as evidence of variance in register-specific interactive rules. Language Variation and Change 9: 1-36.
- Allan, Keith & Kate Burridge. (2006). Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press.
- Andersson, Lars & Peter Trudgill. (1990). Bad language. T J Press Ltd.
- Eble, Connie. (1996). Slang and sociability: In-group language among college students. University of North Carolina Press.
- “Examples of Euphemisms.” (1996-2013). Your Dictionary. LovetoKnow Corp. http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples/examples-of-euphemism.html
- Urban Dictionary. (1999-2013). http://www.urbandictionary.com/
NOTE: the following are intended for ESL students, but if your speech tends to be overly formal, these might help you to adopt more casual usages.
- Hargraves, Orin & Anthony Jenkins (2008). Slang rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners. Merriam-Webster.
- Hart, Carl W. (2009). The Ultimate Phrasal Verb Book. 2nd Ed. Barron’s.
- Spears, Richard A. (2001). Slang and Euphemism. 3rd revised ed. Signet.
- Spears, Richard A., Betty R. Birner, Steven J. Kleinedler, & Luc Nisset. (2010) McGraw-Hill’s Conversational American English: The Illustrated Guide to Everyday Expressions of American English. McGraw-Hill.