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Updated Apr. 29, 2011

  Avoiding Overly Formal Language

Introduction

This page has several examples of English that most native English speakers consider to be too formal to use in normal, everyday speech, including educated speech. In other words, in general, these examples of English are not suitable to use in the IELTS Speaking test

Remember, the Speaking test is not highly formal – it is supposed to represent everyday spoken communication between two people of more or less equal status, using 'educated English'. At the same time, you should not speak too casually or use language that is too informal, such as slang, because that is not educated English.

If you use one of the formal language examples listed on this page, you will not impress the examiner as much as you might think! For example, some candidates think that they will impress the examiner by using multi-syllable words when English has a simpler, one-syllable word that has exactly the same meaning, but this is a mistaken idea. 

For example, saying purchase” instead of “buy” or “my residence” instead of “my home” will not impress the examiner because it is not the way English speakers normally speak. Yes, it is a good idea to show the extent of your vocabulary and to vary the words you use instead of just using the same word several times, but at the same time, you should try to avoid making unsuitable word choices. This page will help you learn some of these unsuitable words and phrases.

Anything described below as "a little formal" might be suitable at times in the speaking test, for example, in Part 3 if you are speaking quite seriously about a rather deep, important topic.

(Note: Some of the cell lines in the table below do not appear when you use Firefox.)

a) Some examples of 'overly formal' verbs

Verbs to use

Verbs to avoid

         Comments

buy

purchase

 

leave, go

depart

 

help

assist

 

need

require

 

ask for request  

start, begin

commence

 

live

reside

 

get

obtain

 

get, gain acquire  
watch observe  
please gratify "Gratify" and the noun, "gratification" are unnecessarily formal in speaking. For example: "She accepted the gift with much gratification." Just say, "She was very happy to accept the gift." or, "She was very pleased to accept the gift."
own possess To say, "I possess a computer and many books." sounds much too formal. But the noun, a 'possession' is normal, not formal sounding.

fix

repair

"Repair" is a little formal. For example, I'm going to repair this broken chairsounds unnecessarily formal but, “I got my shoe repaired” doesn't sound too formal. 

Why? 

'Fix' is probably more suitable when the item to be fixed is composed of simple, solid parts, like a chair and one part is 'broken'. In other words, if something is 'broken', it's suitable to talk about 'fixing' it. But if, for example, your shoe is losing some of its stitching, we don't normally say it is 'broken'. In this case, it sounds normal to say, "I got my shoe repaired".

want

desire

 

stop

cease

 

let

permit

For example,  “My parents don't permit me to say out late at night” sounds too formal.

tell

inform

The noun, 'information' is not overly formal. 

answer, reply

respond

 

write to correspond with  

start again

resume

 

seem

appear (a little formal)

For example: "You appear to be tired today." sounds a little formal. It is better to say, "You seem to be tired today."

ask

enquire, inquire

For example: "I enquired if there was a room available." sounds unnecessarily formal. It is better to say: "I asked if there was a room available." 

try endeavour  
think deem The word 'deem' is very old-fashioned. It is not even suitable for the Writing test and is definitely unsuitable for most spoken language.

would like to, want to

wish to

For example, I wish to study in Britain” sounds too formal.  

Avoid that usage of "wish". But in the following sentence, "wish" is used normally: "I wish I could speak better English." (Don't use "can" in that sentence.)

will, let’s, should

shall

In England, “shall” is used in everyday speech with “I” or “we” but for other English speakers, the word "shall" is only used in formal situations or situations when one is trying to be exceptionally polite. 

If you know your examiner is from Britain, using "shall" to mean "will", "Let's ..." or "should" is ok. But if you know your examiner is not from Britain, I suggest not using it.

(If ... +) would (If ... +) should For example, I should say sowhen used to mean, “I'd say so” (= I would say so) is overly formal. 

Similarly, "I should be worried if I were you." is too formal. Instead, it is more normal to say: "I'd be worried if I were you."

 

b) Some Overly Formal Nouns

Nouns to use

Nouns to avoid

Comments

some help some assistance  
a home a residence  
the beginning, the start the commencement  
a drink a beverage  
high school secondary school The words, 'secondary school' might be used by the examiner but unless the examiner first uses it, you should use 'high school'. 

('Middle school', a term sometimes used in the U.S.A., is unfamiliar to most British and Australian examiners.)

people persons Saying something such as , "five persons ..." sounds like 'officialese' (公文体的文字). It is best to avoid this word. Of course, the singular noun, "person" is normal
people individuals The word, "individual" is normal to use as an adjective or when we are talking about a single person and emphasizing the uniqueness of the person or the character or personality of that person. For example, "He's a very strange individual."

But I suggest not using it as a substitute for "person" when not emphasizing the individualistic or unique nature of that person. 

Using "individuals" to mean "people" is unnecessary and it sounds like 'officialese' (公文体的文字).

 

c) Other Overly Formal Words and Phrases

Use

 Avoid

Comments

people say that ...

(many people say that ...)

 

It is said that ... The example here, ("It is said that ...") is an example of using the passive voice (被动语态) of a "reporting verb" to indicate a generally held belief or opinion. Other examples are, "It is believed ... " and, "It cannot be denied ... " These expressions are used in very formal writing and are not suitable for speech, even educated speech. See HERE for more on this.

In general, English speakers try to avoid the passive voice (被动语态) whenever possible when speaking everyday language because it can sound too impersonal. (However, as shown below, there are occasions when the passive is suitable in everyday speech.) 

Instead of using the passive voice, you should try to speak personally, especially when you are talking about yourself. For example, the following sentence sounds unnecessarily formal: "I live near an airport and passing planes can be heard night and day." (From "New Concept") A much more natural way to say that is: "I live near an airport and I (can) hear passing planes night and day."

"Speaking personally" does not just mean using, "I" or "my" it means saying who did the action of the verb and includes using, "you", "he", "she", "they", the actual name of the person or, as in the example shown here, "People" or "Many people" etc. When you are talking about someone who you know personally, you should especially try to speak personally, not impersonally.

When the Passive Voice is Suitable

The passive voice is most suitable to use when you don't know who did the action, or when who did the action is not important, such as when talking about when something was built. For example, it's suitable to say, "It was built during the Ming Dynasty, about four hundred years ago."

It is also quite suitable when you do know who did the action but when the verb is a creative activity such as 'build', 'make', 'invent', 'compose' or 'write'. For example, the following sentences are normal spoken English: "It was composed by Mozart.", "It was invented by Thomas Edison." and, "It was written by Lu Xun." 

However, if the person is someone close to you, it is much more suitable to speak personally. For example, the following sentence sounds a little too impersonal when talking about your grandmother: "It was made by my grandmother." It is better to just say: "My grandmother made it."

I've got to ...

or

I have to ...

or

I must

It is necessary for me to ...

This is similar to using the passive voice. Even though this includes the word, "me" it sounds too impersonal.

a lot of, lots of, a large amount of much

The sentence, “There was much snow on the ground after the heavy snowfall” sounds too formal. That is, avoid speaking "much" in an affirmative sentence (肯定句). I even suggest avoiding this usage in your Writing test because the Writing test is not as formal as many people think.

"Much" used this way is suitable for a formal speech or formal writing. For example, here is a suitable but formal usage of the word "much": "We have made much progress in the past year." This sentence is suitable to use in a situation such as when a company CEO is making a speech to a meeting of company shareholders or when the president of a country is giving a speech to the whole nation.

Your high school teachers told you there were only two choices, "many" and "much" but your high school teachers were not really teaching you spoken English - they were mostly teaching you written English because the College Entrance Exam has no English speaking test. "A lot of" is quite natural in spoken English and, "lots of" is also used although it is a little more informal. 

Although this usage of "much" sounds formal, the following are normal in everyday speech: 

Used in questions: "how much?", "Do you have much food at home?", "Is there much snow on the ground?"

Used in Negative Sentences: (定句): "I don't have much food at home.",  "There's not much snow on the ground."

Yes Of course!

For example, when the examiner says, “Could I see your identification please”, don't reply with, Of course! This sounds falsely formal and besides, it is not a true 'Yes/No' question. See HERE and HERE for more on this.

while whilst  
when upon  For example, “When she entered the room, she .... ” sounds much better than, Upon entering the room, she ... ” 
interesting places places of interest "Places of interest" sounds like a written advertisement. (It's also overused in China.) Just say, "interesting places" or "tourist sites" if that's what you mean.
It's immense. It is of immense size. Saying, "be verb" + "of" + "adjective" is formal. For example: "It's of great interest to me." Better sentences are: "I find it interesting." Or, "It's interesting."
On top of that, ...

or

As well as that, ...

or

In addition (to that), ... (a little formal)

Moreover,  It is best to only use, "Moreover" in academic (i.e., formal) writing.
So, ...    

 

 

Consequently, .... (a little formal) 

Those examples I have labeled as "a little formal" are suitable to use when you are speaking about deeper, more serious topics, using language that is a little more formal than when talking about more 'everyday' topics. 

For example, in the following sentence, 'so' is better to use than, 'consequently'. 

Too formal = "I've been playing football ever since I was seven years old and consequently I'm very good at it now.

More natural = "I've been playing football ever since I was seven years old so I'm very good at it now."

But in the following example, 'consequently' is suitable: "Many new factories have opened up in China in the past few years and these factories play a crucial role in reducing unemployment, which is a serious problem here. Consequently, people tolerate the pollution that the factories produce because they think it's an acceptable price to pay."

For that reason, ...

or

That's why ...

or

so ...

Therefore, ... (a little formal)  "Therefore" is best used when speaking about more serious topics and especially when you have used the language of logic to come to a conclusion. 

Here's an example of an unsuitable use of "therefore": "I love singing, therefore karaoke is my favourite way to relax.

A better way to say that is: "I love singing that's why karaoke is my favourite way to relax.

Or, "I love singing so karaoke is my favourite way to relax."

after that thereafter  
that way thereby  
immediately forthwith
As a result, ... 

In this way, ...

Thus, ... "Thus" is too formal for most spoken English and even too formal for most written essays. It is used mostly when coming to a logical conclusion when writing mathematics.
So, ...    

As a result, ...  

Hence, ... 'Hence' is very formal and old fashioned, even too formal for your writing test (in most cases).
That's to say, ... That is to say, ... Not using the contracted form makes the expression, That is to say, ...sound like written English, not spoken English. The same comment applies to the four examples below, in most cases. 

Use contracted English as much as possible. 

What's more, ... What is more, ... As above
It's ... It is ... As above
I can't I cannot As above
I don't I do not As above

because

as, for

since (a little formal)

For example, “I’m sitting for the IELTS exam as I want to study in Australia.” Or, “I’m sitting for the IELTS exam for I want to study in Australia.”

It’s more natural to say, “I’m sitting for the IELTS exam because I want to study in Australia.” 

"Since" is used more in written English than in spoken English and is therefore formal. However, it is not too formal-sounding when used in speech at the beginning of a sentence such as: "Since I'm still a student, I don't have much money for traveling." But when "since" is used in the middle of a sentence, it does sound unnecessarily formal. For example: "I don't have much money for traveling since I'm still a student." It is better to use "because" instead of "since" in that sentence.

This is a rather unusual case of the shorter words being more formal than the longer word.

I've got a new computer. I've a new computer. Using 'got' with the contracted form of 'have' is more natural spoken English and better, in my opinion, although some English speakers do use, "I've a new computer " in everyday speech.
from where whence 'Whence' is very old fashioned and formal and not even suitable for your writing.
don't need to + verb needn't + verb As with the "I've a . . . " example above, some people do use "needn't + verb" in everyday speech but for many English speakers, including me, it sounds a little formal. Using, "don't need to ..." sounds better.
... and these are: ... 

(or similar words)

... as follows: ... "As follows"  is best used in rather formal writing, when listing or giving examples.
Specifically say which one you mean, even if you have to repeat what you just said. "the latter" and, "the former" These are best reserved for rather formal writing, not speaking.
Better to use words such as, " (or) you could say" or, "I'd even say ..."  . . .  if you will. The expression, "if you will" is used in formal writing. It means something like, "or this word, if you prefer to use it". 

For example, "My mother is my best friend, my source of strength, if you will.

A better way to say that is, "My mother is my best friend   I'd even say, my source of strength."

who ... with

who ... to

who ... for

or omit the word "who" completely

with whom

to whom

for whom 

For example, "She's one of the people with whom I live" is too formal sounding. It is better to say, "She's one of the people who I live with." 

Even better is to drop the word "who" completely and just say, "She's one of the people I live with.

Similarly, "She's the person to whom I spoke." is too formal. A much better way to speak is: "She's the person who I spoke to" or, even better, "She's the person I spoke to."

Natural spoken English is like this. We can omit the relative pronoun (联系代词) when that pronoun is used as the object, not the subject.

But in the following sentence, we must use 'who' because 'who' is the subject: "I know a man who has five children." In this sentence, "who has five children" = "he has five children" = "the man has five children".  (See HERE for more on this.)

Just omit, "that" that (联系代词) - a little formal As in the example above ('who'), the relative pronoun 'that' is often omitted in informal speech. However, it does not sound highly formal to include 'that' when speaking.

For example: "Being a vet is something that I've dreamed about all my life.

A better way to speak is: "Being a vet is something I've dreamed about all my life.

Even better is to speak more directly and say, "I've dreamed of being a vet all my life."

Another example: "It's the type of film that I like the most." A better way to speak is: "It's the type of film I like the most." Or, more directly, "I like this type of film the most."

which ... in.

and

which ... with.

in which 

and 

with which

This is similar to the use of "by whom" and "with whom". 

For example, the following sentence sounds too formal: "That is the city in which I was born." It is much more normal speech to say, "That's the city which I was born in."

regarding, concerning as regards This is written business English.
happy  sanguine The word, "sanguine" has a formal, literary (文学的) feel to it. When speaking, the word, "happy", "optimistic" or a similar everyday word is much more natural.
My hometown is on the banks of the Yangzi River. My hometown lies on the banks of the Yangzi River. When the word, "lies" is used this way, it has a literary (文学的) feel to it. It's suitable in a book but doesn't sound very natural in everyday speech.
you one  For example: "One feels more relaxed when sitting in a quiet park, away from the hustle and bustle of the city." It is much more natural to say: "You feel more relaxed when sitting in a quiet park, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Even more natural in spoken English is to change the words, "when sitting" to, "when you're sitting" or, "when you sit": "You feel more relaxed when you're sitting in a quiet park, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Or, "People feel more relaxed when (they're) sitting in a quiet park, away from the hustle and bustle of the city."

 

do, work (or other simple words) be engaged in (a little formal) For example: "I'm engaged in international trade" sounds unnecessarily formal. It is better just to say, "I work in international trade".

This is another example of using the passive voice when it is more suitable to speak personally.

Pardon? or, Sorry? I beg your pardon?
 

alright or, ok

 

in order

 

For example: "Everything was in order" sounds like 'officialese' (公文体的文字). Just say, "Everything was alright" or, "Everything was ok" or some other everyday words to describe the specific situations such as, "Everything was just as I had left it."

I was very surprised by the news. I was most surprised by the news. (a little formal) Using "most + adjective" or "most + adverb" sounds unnecessarily formal. Use "very" or, "very much", "extremely" or "really".
(very) many; several  numerous

 

Besides avoiding the examples on this page, what are some general ways to learn suitable spoken English?

In general, you will be able to decrease your use of unsuitably formal language if you try to learn how written English differs from spoken English, and avoid using English that is only (or mainly) used in written English. 

More specifically, you will learn English that is more suitable for speaking if you:

a)  Listen to more natural spoken English (spoken by native English speakers) rather than learn what you think is suitable spoken English from books, especially 'old fashioned' books and the English "classics";

b)  Avoid 'business English' books, especially those produced in China. These books (those written in China) contain English that has a degree of politeness that is somewhat exaggerated for Westerners, reflecting Chinese culture more than the English-speaking culture. When you speak English, you should also, to some extent, adopt the culture of English speakers and when a foreigner speaks Chinese, he or she should, to some extent, also adopt Chinese culture. (Good quality, modern business English books imported from overseas generally do use suitable language but even then, the situations in those books might be more formal than the IELTS speaking test situation); 

c)  Be careful of using English that you learn from model Writing test answers, especially those model answers not written by native English speakers;

d)  Learn to use more phrasal verbs;

e)  Learn to use contracted verb forms more than you use the full forms; and

f)  Understand that many 'IELTS Vocabulary' books are meant mostly for writing and reading, not speaking. This does not mean you should not use those vocabulary books at all but I do suggest you be careful of which words you use in the speaking test and I suggest you don't only use those books as a way to improve your vocabulary.  

What if the examiner uses formal language?

It is possible that the examiner will occasionally use some of the examples of formal language listed on this page in his or her questions. If this happens in Part 3, it might mean that the examiner is a rather formal person and, in this case, you also could speak a little more formally than I recommend. 

However, language that the examiner uses in Part 1 & 2 is not really the examiner's own language it comes from the question book. For example, 'secondary school' might be used in Part 1 instead of, 'high school'. For this example, and for any other question, if you answer using the words that were used in the question, it will not sound too bad. But when you choose words and expressions yourself, words that were not used in the question, try to avoid the formal ones.

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See also: Some Questions About Formal Language