Why ‘Is it formal or informal?’ is perhaps my most-hated question in ELT

Let’s face it, over the years, we’ve probably all asked plenty of questions in class that we later look back on and regret. This starts from our very first teaching practice when we become aware of the fact that we’ve explained something poorly and that half our students are looking worryingly confused. Unable to come up with anything more sensible or probing, we clumsily reach for that old classic ‘Does everyone understand?’ ….. despite knowing in our heart of hearts that if we were in a class and found ourselves lagging behind a bit, we’d be very unlikely to thrust an arm into the air and start shouting about it. Of course, plenty of other duff questions follow. Here are just a few that I wince about when recalling:

So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Was the listening difficult?

Has everyone finished?

So can you use any words to fill in the gaps or only words that appear in the box at the top of the exercise?

Can I read a sitcom?

and so on. However, one question that I clung on to for far too long – and that, as a result, I probably led thousands of students to believe was a valuable thing to ask was . . . “So is it formal or informal?”

The idea that formality and informality were somehow useful concepts to worry about dates right back to my entry point into ELT – the one-month CTEFLA course I did back in 1993. We were told that register was a key component of vocabulary teaching, and initially my understanding of this concept didn’t go much further than the basic dictionary definition. Cambridge, for example, defines register thus: “the style of language, grammar, and words used for particular situations” and then adds a telling example – People chatting at a party will usually be talking in an informal register. Register became fixed in my mind as essentially to do with formality and informality, and initially at least, these concepts went by relatively unexamined: formal meant serious and official situations . . . business meetings, places where a shirt and tie was expected, and so on, whilst I understood informal to basically mean something like ‘chatting with friends’.

With this (flimsy) framework in place, off I went into the big wide world and proceded to ask countless students “Is it formal or informal?” when tackling things as random as compensate, look into, think about and undermine. In case you’re wondering, by the way, back then I would often do this by looking at ‘more formal’ or ‘more informal’ ways of saying things, an activity that many coursebooks often encouraged me to do, so compensate might’ve been suggested as a ‘formal’ way of saying make it up to someone, and look into might’ve been matched with its more ‘formal’ so-called ‘synonym’ investigate. This seemed to satisfy my Italian- and Spanish-speaking students who’d often recoil in horror when placed in an FCE class where they were bombarded with endless phrasal verbs. Go down, go against and go through seem more palatable if understood as ‘informal’ synonyms for decrease, oppose and experience, for example. It wasn’t until much further down the line that I started realising how problematic this simplistic way of dealing with vocabulary really was.

As I stayed in the profession longer and undertook further studies, my understanding of register expanded accordingly. In his An A-Z of ELT, Scott Thornbury defines the concept as follows:

“Register is the way that language use varies according to variations in the context. It is a term that is used particularly by proponents of systemic functional linguistics. They argue that there is a systematic correlation between the forms of language and features of the social context. In other words, the choice of linguistic form is not arbitrary, but is governed by a configuration of cultural and contextual factors. Key factors are the field of discourse (what is being talked or written about), the tenor (the relationship between the participants) and the mode of the discourse (whether, for example, the language is written or spoken). Together these features constitute the register variables of a situation. Texts whose contexts of situation are the same are said to belong to the same register. Thus, three holiday postcards written by three different people each to a close friend will have in common the same field, tenor and mode settings. Hence they can be said to share the same register. And because they share the same register, they will have meanings in common, which will, in turn, be realised by similar grammatical and lexical features. The formula Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here, for example, is so indicative of ‘postcard register’ that is has become a cliché.”

(page 194)

With this kind of more nuanced understanding slowly developing, I started shifting away from the simple binary formal / informal tack and towards a more contextual approach. “Well, I definitely say this to my friends and to my mum and dad, but I can’t imagine ever using it in a staff meeting here at the university” and so on. Despite students never having met my mum and dad or having any real sense of what was generally discussed in (often very heated!) staff meetings or the language that was used to do so, I nevertheless felt that such distinctions were somehow more helpful.

Now, before I stick the knife in, I should clarify that I’m not saying that there’s nothing of value to be learned here. It’s obviously important to understand that questions like Wassup? or How’re you doing? are only likely to be used among friends, while I’m awfully sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might possibly be able to help me tends to suggest a far greater degree of social distance. And, of course, if you’re helping students get better at particular genres of writing, it’s very useful to have an understanding of how grammar and vocabulary frequently interact to express commonly repeated ideas within those genres. For instance, when writing postcards, people often leave out the subject as it’s obvious, so Back next Friday evening might be preferred to We’ll be back next Friday evening, as it takes less space on the back of the card.

However, when it comes to our day-to-day handling of vocabulary, all of these ideas become far less relevant. I was reminded of this recently during an online lesson where one of the homeworks had involved doing an exercise on binomials. The items featured included on and off, hit and miss, peace and quiet, think long and hard about, law and order and rules and regulations. We checked the answers and I then asked the group if anyone had any questions. “So are binomials formal or informal?” came the response.

Twenty years ago, I would probably just have claimed that they were mostly on the informal side of things and been done with it. Or perhaps I might have managed a slightly more subtle response and said “Mostly informal, but law and order is maybe used more formally.” These days, I no longer really even understand the question. Think long and hard is neither ‘formal’ nor ‘informal’; rather, it’s used when you’re talking about thinking long and hard about things. It might be two friends chatting in the pub and one tells the other that they should think long and hard about returning to work after lockdown if they’re not 100% sure that their workplace will be safe . . . or that they should think long and hard about how much they’re willing to sacrifice for money before taking a new high-powered job. It could be a newspaper editorial urging leaders to think long and hard about the consequences of a particular course of action, or it could be a talk at a business forum where the keynote speaker announces that many business people are having to think long and hard about what their businesses will look like post-coronavirus. What helps students deal with the item and have some chance of using it themselves is (a) understanding what thinking long and hard entails and (b) seeing some examples of the binomial in use. This, of course, is true for all the other items too.

The same holds for other things we’re often told are ‘informal’ like phrasal verbs and idioms and different uses of get. They’re used when we want to use them, becuase they express the meaning we need to express. Take the afoermentioned look into . . . a boss in a business meeting might promise to look into the matter after a complaint has been raised, the health secretary might promise to look into the government’s failure to provide healthcare workers with sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or during a chat over dinner, a parent might say that there’s clearly been some screw-up with their kid’s university application and that they’ll need to look into it.

On top of all of that, the formal / informal dichotomy all too often gives an entirely false picture of how language is actually used. My younger self might once have claimed postpone was a ‘formal way of saying’ put off. Nowadays, I’d avoid teaching both at the same time. If I was teaching put off, I’d say that often when you put things off, you delay doing them – usually because you don’t want to do them – and then give examples: I really should go and get this tooth looked at. I’ve been putting it off for ages now. // We can’t put the decision off any longer. We really need to decide today. If a student were to then ask if it’s like postpone, I’d say that they’re similar, but usually it’s exams or meetings or games (of football, for instance) that get postponed, and maybe give another example: That concert’s been postponed becuase of coronavirus. In other words, I’ve come to believe that the best way to tackle vocabulary is to avoid trite generalisations about register and formality, and instead focus on simple and concise explanations, collocations, and examples of how the items are often used.

To conclude, it’s worth remembering that the questions teachers ask students send subliminal messages about what we feel is worth valuing. If we keep asking whether items are formal or informal, students are more likely to start asking the same question back. If the question is still part of your repertoire, maybe now is the time to junk it and move instead towards something a bit more focused on examples of language in use.

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5 Responses

  1. Gordon says:

    Hi Hugh,

    another r good reason for not teaching phrasal verbs and their one-word equivalents is that the one-word versions are easier to use (no problems working out what “type” they are and how their word-grammar works with direct and indirect objects and prepositions) and so students tend to learn the one-word equivalent. (Can’t remember where I read that. Schmitt, Nation, Webb, McCarthynCarter or Meara, I suppose!)

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      I agree Gordon, though I also think phrasal verbs generally are really badly taught – and we do no-one any favours by making them more ‘grammatical’ or treating them as a separate thing. Like everything else, they’re just words that go together with other words to form meanings. I mena, SORT OUT MY VISA is no easier or harder to learn that REPOSSESS THE HOUSE, is it?

  2. Jon Ellis says:

    Hi Hugh,

    I just wondered what you thought about textbooks, and maybe also reference books stating that ‘have got’ is less ‘formal’ than ‘have’ for talking about possession.
    I think this is rather misleading. ‘Have got’ is used when people need it, ie when speaking as opposed to writing, and by people I mean most native speakers, with the possible exception of (some) Irish (?)
    Also, following on from my question in the first paragraph, do you think the teacher should bother teaching ‘have got’ and it’s associated grammar eg have you got?/I haven’t got. Or should he/she just give students a break and say ‘it’s fine to say I have’ when speaking.


    • Andrew Walkley says:

      I agree it’s not helpful to describe ‘have got’ as less formal. In many ‘formal’ situations it would be perfectly acceptable and it’s usually more a question of genre (e.g. certain academic writing). The other more important point you touch on is that it is used in certain varieties of English much more than others and in somewhat different ways. In terms of teaching, in Outcomes, we made a conscious choice not to teach ‘have got’ as a productive structure and present ‘I have … / do you have..?’ instead (you will see examples of have got in texts/listenings, though). I wouldn’t teach ‘have you time?’ or ‘have you a pen?’ as forms, but I wouldn’t think to correct them either. There really is so much else to learn and, as you say, we should give students a break!

  3. Jonathan Ellis says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this topic. It was particularly helpful to note the distinction between teaching a productive phrase and coming across that phrase in listening etc.

    I think the problem with textbooks etc is that they treat have got as another, (important) piece of the grammar jigsaw. Maybe it’s better to be treated as a phrase.

    Best wishes,


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