Written May 28, 2008


Some Questions on Formal Language

Q: When is formal English used?

The following are some examples of when the highest level of formality is used in spoken English:

  1. In a formal speech, spoken in a formal situation such as when presenting a company report to a shareholders' meeting or when the leader of a nation makes an important speech to the parliament or to the nation as a whole. This kind of speech is not meant to entertain and normally does not include jokes as an attempt to make the audience laugh;

  1. Instances where the speaker (or writer) wants to create an impression of professionalism, for example, "business English" such as when the secretary to the CEO of a large company is talking to the CEO about his schedule for the coming week. Similarly, legal documents and academic papers are written in a highly professional, formal style and the professional people who write these often speak in a similar style when speaking professionally. 


  1. Occasions when someone is speaking to a person who is considered to be vastly superior in status, such as when an employee of a very expensive hotel is speaking to a guest of that hotel. In this case, it is considered inappropriate and even impolite for the employee to become 'too familiar' with the guest by speaking to the guest informally or as an equal.

The IELTS Speaking test is supposed to represent, in many ways, a typical spoken interchange between university students or between a student and a university lecturer. Both of these situations are interactions between people of equal or near-equal status, not between people of different status. 

Chinese students need to understand that your university lecturer in England or Australia will treat you as an adult, not as a 'big high school student' as in China. University students in the West do not automatically show great respect to teachers simply because they are teachers. Yes, they are polite and they show respect, especially if the lecturer is old and famous, but not the same degree of respect that is shown in East Asia.

Q: How informal can I speak in the speaking test?

Although you should not speak too formally in the test, you should also not speak too informally or casually. For example, using "gonna" (for "going to"), "wanna" (for "want to"), "I dunno" (for "I don't know"), "coz" (for "because"), "Yeah" (for "yes") and "like" (for "what I mean is" or "in other words") habitually and frequently in the speaking test is too casual. (But occasionally using these expressions in the Speaking test is acceptable, especially in fast speech.)

In general, English from popular music, (including country and western music), teenage slang, 'gangster slang', language from chat sites on the internet, English from comic books and English from most films is unsuitable to use as your models. This is especially true if it is an 'action film', portraying  'tough guys', soldiers, cowboys, policemen etc. or a film portraying teenagers. However, films portraying well-educated people do usually have some English that is suitable for the IELTS Speaking test.