Expressions that are informal or even colloquial may be too informal for formal academic or business writing or speaking contexts. These are not necessarily wrong, but are dispreferred or considered less appropriate for such types of writing or discourse, and more formal expressions are preferred. It might be okay to use a few of these in certain contexts, but regular or frequent use of these will make a paper sound unprofessional.
1 General characteristics
Informal expressions, compared to their more formal counterparts, may be distinguished by the following characteristics.
|Informal expressions||Formal expressions||Informal cf. formal examples|
|Words that are more general or less precise in meaning||Terms with more specific, precise meaning or scope||people vs. Canadians, voters, participants, etc.|
|Shorter, more common words (often from the Old Germanic or Old French parts of the English lexicon)||Longer, multi-syllabic terms from Latin, Greek, modern French, or other languages||sick vs. infection|
|Common, high-frequency words, e.g., high school level vocabulary||Less common, low-frequency vocabulary; specialized vocabulary of certain fields; college or post-graduate level vocabulary||machine vs. laparoscope, EKG, eye tracker|
|Words that have an emotional, biased, or negative tone||Neutral sounding vocabulary||grammar Nazi vs. pedantic, prescriptivist|
|Words or phrases that are more metaphorical||More transparent, neutral and precise terminology||don't beat around the bush vs. equivocate, prevaricate|
|Contractions||Full forms||can't vs. cannot|
Some common examples of informal expressions include the following.
- Colloquial and slang vocabulary
- That's cool. Just chock it up to experience.
- They're in cahoots with the mafia.
- Regional or dialect expressions
- Tell me it ain't so.
- We gotta schlep this couch up the stairs. ("schlep" = New York slang)
- Oy! There's some bloke making off with a TV!
- Expletives or taboo expressions
- Bloody hell, it's bloody cold out there.
- I don't give a damn anymore. Let's just go to the pub and get pissed.
- Sexist, racist, or discriminatory language
It should be pretty obvious that language that even implies negative attitudes toward women, minorities, ethnic groups, members of the LGBT community, etc. are inappropriate.
- Gender-biased language
This includes terms that use masculine words for people who could have female members.
- Postman → letter carrier, postal worker
- Businessman → business people
- Policeman → police officer
- Girl (if referring to an adult woman) → female student, female coworker, etc.
Likewise for possessive adjectives:
- Each student must bring
hisidentification. → his/her identification; OR: All students must bring their identification.
2 Sentence types
Some informal types of sentences can be made more formal.
- Using question and answer format in an essay
- This leads to the following questions. Do aliens fly around the Earth? Are they really spying on us? Are they really kidnapping people? The evidence says "no."
- Can they still be considered to have social value? Yes, they can certainly still be appreciated by society.
- Using quotation style and quoted expressions to present and develop points.
- Some people on the Internet keep asking questions like "Are aliens spying on us?" or "Are they really kidnapping people?" The evidence says "no."
- Overuse of quotations
Sometimes quotations are used when they are not really necessary, especially common quotations. To avoid sounding too informal, they can be deleted if they are not really necessary; otherwise, they can be paraphrased without direct quotations.
- Can they still be considered to have social value? Well, as Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name is still a rose," so yes, they can still be appreciated by society.
- Idioms, clichés (common, overused expressions) and aphorisms (common phrases that convey popular sentiments).
- He's older than dirt.
- I wasn’t born yesterday.
- There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
- He's driving her up the wall.
3 Nouns and pronouns
In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific noun, which will depend on the context.
|folks||people, family, relatives|
|girl (if referring to an adult woman)||woman, female coworker, female student, etc.|
|man||males, (male) participants / subjects, male voters, etc.|
|net, the net||the Internet ("Internet" is capitalized)|
|part||portion, section, sector, segment, aspect|
|person, people (often vague)||individual, Canadians, researchers, subjects, voters, males, participants|
|stuff||things, material, objects, matter|
|thing||object, device, item, situation, circumstance, subject, element ...|
|way (e.g., a way to do something)||manner, method, means, methodology, instrument, aspect|
|women||females, (female) participants, etc.|
Likewise, the following indefinite pronouns can be replaced with more specific nouns.
- someone, anyone → an individual, a Canadian, a researcher, a particular subject, one particular voter, certain participants
- something, anything → an object, a device, an item, a subject, an element
- somewhere, anywhere → a certain location, some unknown village, the city of Brighton
- everywhere → all locations, all counties of Alberta
- everyone → all the citizens of Liverpool, a majority of residents in Cleveland
- everything → all atoms in the universe
- Second person
The second person you in writing sounds very informal or personal, and it is generally avoided in all forms of academic writing. Likewise, second-person verb forms are avoided, including commands like Do not do this.
- First person
The first person I and we can sound informal, especially the singular I and me. These are generally avoided in formal writing, except when the authors need to comment directly, e.g., when explaining their rationale for doing something. First person is rarely used in science writing, occasionally in social science writing, and somewhat more often in humanities writing, such as in literature studies. If first person is really needed, we is better than I.
- Standard contractions
It is preferable to write out full forms instead of contractions
- don't → do not
- can't → can not, cannot
- we've → we have
- Colloquial contractions
It is better to avoid colloquial contractions such as these.
- innit? (UK English)
- See also
- Easily confused verbs such as say, tell, talk
4.1 Common verbs
Many common verbs that are frequently used in English may have fairly general meanings, or may sound informal. This can include more idiomatic verbal expressions They can be substituted as follows.
|Common verb||More specific|
|get worse||worsen, deteriorate|
|give the go ahead||authorize, permit|
|kid, kidding||joking, jesting|
|let||allow, permit, grant|
|need to||require, is required|
|say no||refuse, reject, deny|
|show||demonstrate, illustrate, portray, indicate, exhibit|
|use||utilize, make use of|
4.2 Light verbs
These are common, everyday verbs that are rather non-specific in meaning. These are distinguished from other verbs, in that (1) they are the first verbs learned in the language; (2) they have a great variety of meanings, and thus can be less specific semantically; and (3) they are often used in idioms, set expressions, and collocational expressions. In academic writing, many times it is better if these can be replaced with more specific verbs, and the choice will depend on the context. However, in set expressions like 'get married' it may be difficult to replace them.
|Light verb||More specific|
|be||exist, occur, equal, consist of, comprise (of), typify, appear, seem, tend...|
|do||perform, execute, carry out, implement, manage...|
|get||obtain, acquire, come into possession (of), capture|
|give||provide, yield, produce, lead to, impart...|
|go, run, come||proceed, journey, travel, progress, exceed...|
|have||possess, contain, exhibit ... |
In descriptive phrases, have can be replaced with with, e.g. "A patient who had the flu" → "A patient with the flu"
|make||create, produce, facilitate...|
|set, put||place, position, arrange...|
4.3 Phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs
When possible, phrasal verbs should be replaced with more formal verbs (often, verbs of Latin origin) with more specific meanings. For example, many ESL students use find out when a better expression for formal writing would be discover, determine, ascertain. Since phrasal verbs often have many meanings, the choice will depend on the context. The same applies to some VERB + PREPOSITION combinations formed with a fairly common verb.
|Phrasal / prep. verb||More specific|
|be about, it's about||it concerns; in regard to; this deals with, handles, addresses, explicates|
|blow up||inflate, explode|
|break down||collapse, implode, suspend, collapse|
|break off||suspend, adjourn, abrogate, halt|
|break out||escape; erupt|
|break up||disintegrate, dissolve; end (their) relationship|
|bring back||return, re-introduce|
|come after||follow, proceed|
|come back||return, resume|
|come up to||reach, attain|
|deal with||handle, manage, address|
|drop out (of)||withdraw, cancel, finish, fall|
|fill in||substitute, inform, complete|
|find out||find, discover, ascertain, determine, identify, decide on, assess|
|get away||escape, elude|
|get by||survive, endure|
|get in touch with||contact, establish contact with|
|give up||quit, surrender, resign oneself to __|
|go after||follow, proceed, pursue|
|go against||contradict, oppose|
|go around||circumvent, circumnavigate, sidestep, ignore, rotate, gyrate, orbit, circumduct, twist, revolve, meander, ramble|
|go away||leave, depart|
|go down||decrease, diminish, abate|
|go on||continue, persist|
|go out (of)||exit, diminish, leave, depart, extinguish, cease, die, dim, expire, subside, decline, dwindle, recede, quit, retire, withdraw|
|go through||undergo, endure, pass through, experience, suffer; examine, inspect|
|go up||increase, arise|
|f*** up||bungle, mismanage, mishandle, muddle, spoil, wreck, ruin|
|keep up||maintain; continue|
|leave out||omit, delete|
|link up||connect, get in contact with|
|look at||examine, observe; regard|
|look into||examine, investigate|
|look up to||respect, admire|
|make up||fabricate, create, invent; comprise, consist (of)|
|mix up||mix, confuse|
|point out||indicate, index, refer to|
|put in||insert, enter|
|put down||deposit; euthanize (a pet)|
|put off||postpone, delay, procrastinate|
|put up (with)||tolerate, endure|
|ring up||call, telephone|
|screw up||bungle, mismanage, mishandle, muddle, spoil, wreck, ruin|
|set out||depart, leave; display|
|show up||arrive, appear|
|slow down||decelerate, decrease speed|
|stand for||represent; tolerate|
|take away||remove, excise|
|take on||challenge, oppose|
|take out||excise, remove, clear, exclude, omit, extirpate, destroy|
|talk about||discuss, consider|
|talk into / out of||persuade, convince|
|think about||consider, deliberate, ponder|
|throw out||discard, eject|
|try out||try, test, audition, interview|
5 Adjectives, adverbials, & other modifiers
In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific word, which will depend on the context.
|a bit, a little bit||slightly, somewhat|
|a lot of, lots of||much, many, numerous, a large number / amount of|
|again and again||repeatedly, continually, continuously (See below for continuously vs. continually)|
|alright (adj.)||adequate, satisfactory|
|awesome||awe-inspiring, incredible, exceptional, wonderful|
|bad||negative, pejorative, poor, ineffective, adverse...|
|cheap||inexpensive; poor quality|
|cheeky||rude, impolite, impudent|
|crazy||insane, (mentally) deranged, delusional; misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken, ill-advised, lacking judgment|
|dumb||ill-advised, lacking judgment, misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken|
|fed up with __||tired of, dissatisfied with, exasperated with, annoyed by/with|
|good||sufficient, excellent, optimal, ideal, studious, prime, positive, effective, beneficial|
|huge||large, significant, enormous, incredible, gargantuan, gigantic, massive|
|kind of, sort of||somewhat, slightly|
|main (adj.)||primary, principal|
|okay, OK (adj.)||adequate, satisfactory, sufficient|
|pretty (adv.)||very, quite (e.g., pretty nice → very nice)|
|really||very, certainly, definitely|
|really big||considerable, very large|
|right||correct; honest, ethical|
|sick of __||tired of, dissatisfied with, annoyed by/with|
|stupid, crazy, dumb||ill-advised, lacking judgment, misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken|
|tiny||small, very small, minute|
|wrong||incorrect; unethical, unjust, unfair, immoral, objectionable|
- Continuously vs. continually
Continuously refers to one constant state or activity that continuous without interruption. Continually refers to multiple actions in one process, or multiple instances of one state, or an action that is sometimes interrupted but continues. Sometimes they are somewhat interchangeable with only that slight difference in nuance.
- The angry couple argued continually / continuously through the night. (Similar meaning, different nuance; continually suggests one long, unending argument, while continuously implies an unending set of arguments, or multiple instances with breaks in between, that form a whole period of arguing.)
6 Transitional / connector expressions
Some teachers claim that is is "wrong" to start a sentence with a conjunction. This is pedantic and prescriptive, and does not describe how good writers actually write. There is nothing wrong with starting sentences with conjunctions, and good academic and literary writers do so. However, overusing some conjunctions can make a paper sound informal, especially these high-frequency conjunctions and connectors; these can be replaced with others for more variety, better flow, and more specific logical connections among sentences.
- But → However, ... ; Yet; In contrast, ... ; To the contrary, ... ; Although; Though; While; Meanwhile; Whereas
- So → Thus, ... ; Therefore, ... ; As a result, ...; Hence, ... ; We thus decided ...
- Coordinating conjunctions
These are not usually followed by commas, unless another phrase comes before the sentence subject.
- X But, I don't think so.
- ✔️But I don't think so.
- X So, we conclude that the hypothesis is correct.
- ✔️ So we conclude that the hypothesis is correct.
- X Then, we move on to the next problem.
- ✔️ Then we move on to the next problem.
- ✔️ But, as we explained earlier, this is not ideal.
- Conjunctive adverbs
These are adverbs that came to be used as conjunctions to start clauses. These are preceded by a full stop, and followed by a comma. This is true for the conjunctive adverbs thus, therefore, however, otherwise, furthermore, moreover.
- X We conducted the experiment carefully, however we found no significant effects.
- ✔️ We conducted the experiment carefully; however, we found no significant effects.
- ✔️ We conducted the experiment carefully. However, we found no significant effects.
- Ordinal transitions
It is not necessary to use the ordinal or enumerative markers First ... Second ... Third regularly in papers. Using them when the are not really needed can sound mechanical or formulaic. These are used when necessary, e.g., (1) when describing a complex process, or (2) when explaining ideas that are abstract, complex, or hard to follow. Also, writers should pay attention to the following style differences.
- American style: First, ... Second, ... Third, ... Finally, ...
- British style: Firstly, ... Secondly, ... Thirdly, ... Lastly / Finally, ...
- Colloquial style: First of all, ...
- Topic transitions
The following expressions are often used at the beginning of a clause or sentence for changing topics. They themselves are not necessarily informal, but can sound informal if overused.
- as for
- as to
- as regards
- as concerns
In essays and academic papers, they might be used to transition to a related topic, or a previously mentioned topic. Sometimes they can be deleted, or replaced with an appropriate prepositional phrase or other modifier.
- As for San Francisco, if the buildings had been built to code ... → If these buildings in San Francisco had been build to code ...
- As for the experimental group, no difference was found. In the experimental group, no difference was found.
Here are some other expressions that can sound informal, especially if overused.
|And (at the beginning of a sentence)||This can be deleted, or if needed, replaced with one of the following: |
Also, Then, Additionally, In addition
|anyway, anyways||This is used informally for changing topics; in formal writing, simply starting a sentence with a full noun topic, or starting a new paragraph, will often suffice. Sometimes, if it used for making a contrast, it can be replaced with the following. |
still, notwithstanding, nonetheless, nevertheless, yet
|ASAP||as soon as possible, at your earliest convenience|
|besides||More formal alternatives are ‘in addition to’ or ‘furthermore’ - e.g., “In addition to these factors, ...”.|
|first of all||first|
|in a nutshell||in summary, to summarize, in conclusion|
|in the meantime||meanwhile, in the interim|
|in the end||finally, at last|
|like||(is) similar to; for example, as, such as (As a connector, like can seem slightly colloquial. However, as a conjunction before verb phrases, or as a preposition, like is generally fine in contemporary formal English)|
|plus||also, in addition, and, and ... as well, as well as|
|whether or not||whether|
Here are some examples of the more informal like, and more formal counterparts. Here, the informal like is used as a conjunction.
- Don't do like what she did. → Do not do as she has done.
- Activities like smoking and drinking are not allowed here. → Activities such as smoking and drinking are not allowed here.
Some examples of like that are perfectly fine, particularly when it is used as a preposition.
- We don't want any characters like him around.
- She looks just like me.