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How to Avoid Colloquial (Informal) Writing

Four Parts:Writing HelpThe Difference Between Formal and Informal EnglishWhat to Avoid in Formal WritingWhat is Acceptable in Formal Writing

While it may be acceptable in e-mail or in chat rooms, excessive colloquialism can diminish the quality of a formal written text. Colloquialism used sparingly may make you appear more intelligent; however, if used incorrectly, can also make you appear ignorant. To improve your colloquial writing, have mastery of the English language, know what words to avoid, and learn what is acceptable in formal writing.

Writing Help

Tips for Writing

Sample Modified Colloquial Paragraph

Part 1
The Difference Between Formal and Informal English

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    Understand the difference between formal and informal English. Formal and informal English differ in word choice, word usage, and grammatical structures. Informal writing might use the words "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 while 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 2
What to Avoid in Formal Writing

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    Use appropriate punctuation. For example, American English employs a colon in a formal letter as in “Dear John:” but British English employs a comma.[1] 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.
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    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." 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 all formal writing and is often unnecessary.
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    Do not use contractions. Note that the full form of "can't" is one word: "cannot," not "can not."
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    Try to avoid the first and second person. Formal writing often tries to be objective, and the pronouns "I" and "you" tend to imply subjectivity. Phrases such as "I think that" can be deleted from a sentence when it is obvious that this is the author’s opinion. Using the pronoun "I" is almost always acceptable in personal writing, and the pronoun "you" is almost always acceptable in letters and how-to’s. In the most formal writing, the pronoun “I” is replaced by the pronoun “we”; this is known as the royal we or the editorial we. Formal writing generally avoids the pronoun “you” when it refers to people in general.
    • You should sleep eight hours each night. (informal)
    • One should sleep eight hours each night. (formal)
    • Most people should sleep at least eight hours each night. (formal usage allowing for exceptions)
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    Do not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. In the written language, do not use coordinating conjunctions such as "and,” "but," “so,” or “or” to start a sentence. Coordinating conjunctions are meant to join words, phrases, and clauses; a coordinating conjunction is left dangling without a role to play when it comes at the beginning of a sentence. Consider attaching the sentence that starts with a coordinating conjunction to the previous sentence, substituting the period for a comma to produce a compound sentence. You can also use transitional adverbs such as “additionally” (or “moreover”), “nevertheless” (or “however”), “therefore” (or “thus”), and “alternatively” (or “instead” or “otherwise”). “Though” can be used at the end of a sentence: “This product here is much cheaper. It will last only half as long, though.” Starting a sentence with “also” is useful in casual writing but should be avoided in formal English unless the word "also" is modifying a verb (usually in the imperative mood or an inverted sentence structure): "Also read Chapters Two and Three;" "Also included is a free ticket." A paragraph that starts many sentences with coordinating conjunctions may also lack smooth transitions.
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    Avoid clichés to be formal.[2] 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 was as strong as an ox.
    • I have to give an arm and a leg to find a parking spot during the holiday season.
    • It was as pretty as a picture.
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    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. . . ."
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    Avoid vague words. Vague words are less formal and are open to interpretation; they do not express your ideas as well as more precise words would. "A few" or "enough" can often be replaced by something more precise.

Part 3
What is Acceptable in Formal Writing

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    Do not hesitate to split an infinitive when it is warranted. Split infinitives are common in legal writing,[3] an important type of formal English. In fact, the split infinitive is encountered in the most formal of writing.[4] Split infinitives can be used even in very formal writing that avoids the active voice. Infinitives, along with gerunds, contribute to an active writing style and show action but are not actually in the active voice.[5][6] Voice is a property of clauses,[7] and infinitives and gerunds form phrases.[8] Split infinitives are grammatically correct (see How to Learn Perfect English As a Native English Speaker, Tip One).

    The split-infinitive rule is based on Latin, but split infinitives actually make writing more like Latin, not less so. The Romans tended to place adverbs right next to verbs, and adverbs usually preceded verbs.[9][10] In Latin, Captain Kirk would have said “audacter ire” (translated as “boldly to go” or “to boldly go”).This is seen in Latin texts[11] and Star Trek fanfiction such as “Audacter Ire” and "And Justice For All" Oxford dictionary says that “boldly to go” is more formal than “to go boldly”;[12] that is most likely because of the Latin word order. The effectiveness of the split infinitive arises from the fact that “to” and the verb are like a single unit. After all, “to go” would be translated into Latin as the single word “ire.” For emphasis, an artist places a large picture between two smaller pictures; in the same way, an adverb becomes emphatic when placed between "to" and the verb.
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    Do not be afraid to separate the auxiliary (helping) verb and the main verb. See How to Learn Perfect English As a Native English Speaker, Tip Two for a thorough explanation.
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    Know when to end a sentence with a preposition (even in the most formal of English). See How to Learn Perfect English As a Native English Speaker, Tip Three for a thorough explanation.
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    Always include the relative pronoun.[13] In formal English, you should be sure to always include "whom" or "which" even when they are not essential to your meaning. The relative pronoun can be omitted when only a participle is used; in that case, there is no longer a relative clause. Also, avoid using 'that' as a relative pronoun and replace it with 'which', 'whom' or 'who'.
    • This is the paper I wrote. (informal)
    • This is the paper which I wrote. (formal)
    • That was the paper written by me. (formal) (This version uses the past participle and does not contain a relative clause. It is the most formal version because it does not contain any verbs in the active voice.)
    • The bear which was dancing was graceful. (formal)
    • The bear dancing was graceful. (more formal) (“Dancing” is not active; it is not even a verb and is actually an adjective; this becomes clearer when the sentence is rewritten as “The dancing bear was graceful.”)
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    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 readers' 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.

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.[14]
    • I didn't see anybody.
    • I saw no one.
  • As - “As” is often used in formal writing to mean “because.”[15] 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.[16]

  • 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 of a bird."[17]

  • Let - When used in place of "allow" or "permit," "let" is a colloquialism.

  • Madam, ma’am - Both "madam" and "ma’am" are very polite forms of address . . . but "ma’am" is unacceptable in formal English. In fact, "ma’am" is much more informal than other contractions such as "I’m" and "I’ll,"[18][19] which go unmarked in dictionaries.

  • Most - In formal English, do not use "most" for "almost." You should write, "Almost everyone likes pizza," not "Most everyone likes pizza."

  • On the other hand - "On the other hand" is a very common phrase, but can be considered a cliché[20] and should, therefore, be avoided in extremely formal English. Instead, use "conversely" or "by contrast." "On the other hand" is particularly useful in everyday writing and can eliminate the temptation to start with "but."

  • So - Avoid using "so" as a synonym for "very" in extremely formal writing. In perfectly formal writing, you also should avoid using "so" as a coordinating conjunction. You can eliminate this colloquialism by deleting "so" and beginning the sentence with "because." Compare "The song may bother me, so I’ll cover my ears" and "Because the song may bother me, I shall cover my ears." Sometimes, you need the conjunction "that" after "so," as in "I wrote this how-to so that you could improve your grammar and style."

  • Thus, thusly - Usually, the words ending "-ly" are more formal. For example, "firstly" is more formal than "first." In particular, formal English uses “firstly,” “secondly,” et cetera to discuss arguments, one by one.[21][22] This is not the case for "thus," though; in formal writing, use "thus," not "thusly."

  • Yours truly - Ironically, signing a letter "Yours truly" is formal, but referring to yourself as "yours truly" is informal.[23] Still, "Sincerely" is a more formal signature than "Yours truly" because it avoids the second person. "Yours truly" can be very useful in informal English because the proper pronouns sometimes sound wrong. You can say, "It’s yours truly!" instead of "It’s me!" because "yours truly" can be used for "I" and "me."


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?

-Informal Joe

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.


Professional Joe


  • "You can get too much of a good thing!" As it was stated earlier, you must adjust your formality for your audience. Perfectly formal writing may be needed in some situations but ineffective in others. Formal writing that avoids the active voice may bore your audience if it does not focus on people's actions, and teachers have both positive and negative opinions of the passive voice. Be sure that your writing is appropriate for your audience, and always try to write something that readers will enjoy.
  • Looking up words in the thesaurus greatly boosts the formality of your writing . . . but be sure that you use the words correctly and appropriately. Some words carry connotations that a thesaurus does not explain. For example, the California Prune Board changed its name to the California Dried Plum Board because the word "prune" carried a negative connotation about constipation. Consider, for instance, the connotation of "juvenile" and the connotation of synonyms.

Sources and Citations

  1. Formal Email Format Handout.
  2. Richard Lederer, Richard Dowis, and Jim McLean. Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged. Macmillan, 2001. Page 100.
  3. Bryan Garner. A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Second Edition. Oxford University Press US, 2001. Page 823.

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