Help! I’ve Used “Informal English” In My Essay!

Your essay has been marked, and the feedback says you have used informal English and it’s not academic enough.

But English isn’t your first language, and you’re not too sure what is formal and what isn’t formal.

If this describes you, then this guide was written especially for you!

We’re going to look at the 5 most common causes of informal English writing, and how to correct them.

Bonus: Click here to get your free ‘Correct Your Informal Language‘ Worksheet 

Informal English Issue 1: Use of personal pronouns

This is a big issue!

I was guilty of this one in my first year of university when I overused the phrase ‘in my opinion’ in my first essay. My tutor wasn’t very subtle when she marked my paper and commented that she didn’t only want to see my opinion.

Not long after that, I learnt that using pronouns was not appropriate. Pronouns like ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘you’ etc are too personal.

They make your essay more about your feelings and opinions rather than your argument and research.

So, leave out all of those personal pronouns: I, my, we, our, your, you, us and etcetera.

Correct it: Use the passive voice or impersonal subjects!

Informal English Issue 2: Use of spoken language

Don’t write how you speak (Unless you’re writing a blog!)

Seriously though, in academic writing, you shouldn’t write how you speak. It should be as formal as possible.

This means you need forget all of those things you have learnt to help you speak fluently like a native. I’m talking about:

  • Idioms – these are expressions which do not have obvious meanings. Examples:
    1. ‘pull yourself together’ means ‘calm down’
    2. ‘blew me away’ means ‘I was really impressed’
    3. ‘hit the books’ means ‘study diligently’

  • Contractions – these are also called short forms. They’re made when you squeeze two words together (like a noun and a verb, or a verb and not) and use an apostrophe. Examples:
    1. you’re = you are
    2. I’m = I am
    3. This essay’ll argue that you can’t use contractions in academic writing.

  • Slang – this is a type of language which is exclusively informal. You might learn slang  from watching YouTube videos or playing online games. There are usually formal versions of most slang words. Examples:
    1. Kids = children
    2. Deffo = definitely
    3. really = extremely
    4. like = such as
informal english writing

What not to write: “that party blew my mind”.

Incorrect examples:

  1. It is important to make interview participants comfortable or they may get tongue-tied and they won’t speak from deep down.

  2. There are several reasons why the results don’t reflect the whole population.

  3. Nowadays, kids spend too much time watching TV.

Correct examples:

  1. It is important to make interview participants comfortable in order to obtain useful data.

  2. There are several reasons why the results do not reflect the whole population.

  3. In recent years, children have been watching excessive amounts of television.

Idioms: If a sentence or expression doesn’t have a literal meaning, it could be an idiom. Rewrite it.

Contractions: Try my ‘search and destroy’ tactic: ctrl+f or command+f and search your essay for ‘. If you find them, chances are you’ve used contractions. Locate them, and write the words in their full form.

Slang: Check the dictionary. A good dictionary will tell you if the word is slang or not. Sometimes, if the word is not in the dictionary, it’s probably slang.

MIDWAY CHECKPOINT!

Now, I know that was a lot to take in, so let’s have a quick recap!

We’ve covered TWO informal Engish issues so far: personal pronouns and spoken language. In academic writing, we should avoid using personal pronouns (I, you, we etc) and spoken language.

Okay! Feeling refreshed? Let’s carry on!

Bonus: Click here to get your free ‘Correct Your Informal English Language‘ Worksheet 

Informal English Issue 3: Vague Language

Vague language is when you use words which don’t specify a number or a type of something. You should avoid this type of simple and general language, and try to be as specific as you can. If you must be vague or general, do it academically.

Incorrect examples:

  1. A lot of people like music.

  2. There are some reasons why learning a language is good.

Correct examples:

  1. A significant number of young people like pop music

  2. There are three reasons why learning a language can result in higher paid company positions.

Use noun phrases: These are great for making your writing more complex, and they help you to add more information. Noun phrases are a group of words which work like a noun. They can also work as the subject of a sentence.

Noun Phrases

There are quite a few different structures.

For example, you can have simple structures like:

adjective + noun:  [central library] & [biographical text]

noun + noun: [computer room] & [note book];

And more complex structures like:

the + noun + of adjectivenoun

[the number of abandoned dogs has fallen] & [the disposal of nuclear waste is quite a technical process.]

Use a thesaurus: If your word is a simple one, such as big or small, use a thesaurus to find a more academic alternative. Make sure that your new word is the same word type (verb/noun/adjective etc) and has the same or similar meaning.

Be academically general: Don’t say ‘everyone does this’; say ‘most adults do this’.

informal Englis writing

The study of green grass is popular among agrostologists.

Informal English Issue 4: Use of Punctuation to Show Emotion

Don’t use exclamation marks in your essays! (See what I did there?) You can use them in your group chats, emails, status updates.

But don’t use them in your essays.

There is an exception, and that’s when you’re quoting someone. If someone used it in a text that  you are referencing, you can include it in your quotation.

Incorrect example:

  1. This piece of research shows that many people learn languages in different ways!

Correct example:

  1. This piece of research proves that many people learn languages in different ways.

Let your writing show your opinions: by using ‘proves’, we can show that we think the piece of research is quite strong. Other reporting verbs can be used to show your opinion.

Bonus: Click here to get your free ‘Correct Your Informal Language‘ Worksheet 

Informal English Issue 5: Use of Language to Show Emotion

As we discussed earlier, academic writing should be impersonal and formal. This means you should keep your emotions out of your writing as much as possible (unless your assignment asks you to include your feelings).

Thus, it’s a good idea to avoid words such as ‘ridiculous’, ‘awesome’ and ‘a real shame’.

Incorrect example:

  1. It is disgusting to think that some elderly people go weeks without human interaction.

Correct example:

  1. The fact that some elderly people do not have human interaction for long periods of times is unacceptable.

Use stronger language: Try to make your argument and opinion strong but impersonal. You want to hint and suggest your opinion, not shout loudly about it.

Final Words

If you’ve powered through this whole article, well done!

We’ve covered the five main causes of informal writing and how to correct them. These causes are:

  1. Personal pronouns
  2. Spoken language
  3. Vague language
  4. Punctuation used to show emotion
  5. Emotive language.

Mini Quiz!

Post your answers in the comments section below:

  1. What pronouns should you avoid using in academic writing?
  2. What three types of spoken language should you avoid using in academic writing?
  3. Give an example of an idiom.
  4. Give an example of a contraction.
  5. Give an example of slang.
  6. Give an example of vague language.
  7. Which type of punctuation should you avoid using in your essay?
  8. Should you use ‘awesome’ to show your opinion in an essay?
  9. What could you write instead of ‘I think it’s a real shame’?
Bonus: Click here to get your free ‘Correct Your Informal Language‘ Worksheet 

About the Author Sam

Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.

follow me on:

Leave a Comment:

9 comments
Add Your Reply

LEARN ENGLISH FASTER

I'll show you how to avoid the 5 most common English learning mistakes in my 5-day class