LANGUAGE FOCUS: Choosing Style from the "Word-drobe"

By StoryPaul

Sometimes the words we use are like the clothes we put on. Like our wardrobe.

If we need to be formal, we choose more formal and academic words. When we need to be friendlier, we relax our tone a bit. Of course, when we're hanging out with friends or close colleagues, we pretty much say things in a casual way.

Unfortunately, when using English as a second language things are not always so simple. This is especially true for speakers of Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian) who tend to use the familiar "latin-based" words in any given situation. Well, as it happens, those sound formal in English. Whereas, the "anglo saxon" words usually sound more common and relaxed.

To provide some insight, here are ten formal words and collocations and their informal (or more relaxed) counterparts used in context so it makes more sense.

  • This plan is convenient = This plan works for me.
  • Please contact Susie this afternoon = Please get in touch with Susie this afternoon.
  • Could you provide us with some assistance please? = Could you help us out?
  • I need to postpone the meeting until next week. = I've got to put off the meeting 'til next week.
  • Inform them that the conditions of the agreement are not acceptable. = Tell them the deal is off.
  • Later, I will arrange a meeting between you and the team. = Later, I'll set up a meeting between you and the team.
  • They require two references. = They need two references.
  • Thomas has not replied yet. = Thomas hasn't answered back.
  • We need to inquire you on what happened. = We need to ask you about what happened.
  • I truly regret the incident at the club. = I'm so sorry about what happened at the club.

Read the list over a few times. See which one you would probably use and in which situation. Think about the following:

Do you tend to be more formal or informal when using English as a second language?

Do you pay attention to how formal or informal others are when they speak?

Do you ever choose a word because it sounds like one in your language?

A good exercise is to look at natural speaking patterns which tend to be more informal. A good place to find these is in dialogues from movies and television.

With the resources available today on the internet, that is easy to do. A great website to find movie scripts to read is

Another source you can also check out is the top 100 movie quotes of all time created by IMDb (The Internet Movie Database). CHOOSE a few and try to see if they are formal or informal and try to change them to their opposite. It helps if you know something about that story. Pick a movie you know something about. Here is the LINK.


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