As an English Learner, how can I distinguish (or recognise) formal words from informal words. Also, formal sentences from informal sentences.

For example: So/Then/Therefore/Thus
and many others.

Are there any rules?
I wanna learn spoken English (Informal), but I think BBC World News is not spoken English. It is formal. Am I right?

  • 2
    "Formal" is not a very well-defined category in English. It's more a matter of talking/writing the way people we admire talk or write. Watch how they handle formal situations and imitate them; learning words won't help you unless you learn Latin and Middle English as well, because that's the major difference between "formal" and "informal". Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 0:57
  • Several decent dictionaries are indispensable and the Urban Dictionary online is pretty good for informal expression.
    – user98990
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 1:03
  • Aside from fancy "two dollar words", there are few words in English that are inappropriate in informal speech/writing. Rather, the construction loosens up a bit and you throw in a few informal words, sorta like "sorta". (And BBC radio & web site, from what I've heard and seen, is not a terribly bad one to mimic. While the language is a hair formal, it's not stuck-up formal, and the pronunciation, while clearly British, is very close to American pronunciation.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 1:05
  • 2
    @LittleEva - Though the Urban Dictionary often goes off the deep end in providing words and meanings that 90% of folks in the US (and probably even a larger fraction in the UK) would not understand. Good as a resource for determining meanings, but not one to mimic.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 1:07
  • yeah @ HotLicks, was trying to think of a good colloquial manual ... couldn't.
    – user98990
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 1:11

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure what language you speak natively, but it's possible that your mother tongue has a more structured concept of formality that English does.

In English, formality is expressed in a number of ways. Here's a few I could think of (though there are certainly many more):


Using contractions such as "can't" or "doesn't" is usually less formal than using their full forms (in this case "cannot" or "does not").

Word origin

Words of Latin origin are typically more formal than words of Germanic origin (for example, "assist" is more formal than "help", though they mean the same thing.

Sentence structure

Some sentences can sound more or less formal depending on where the subordinate clause is placed. For example:

"We couldn't see the mountains because of the fog."

"Because of the fog, we couldn't see the mountains."

The second, in addition to emphasizing the dependent clause more, sounds more formal.


Sentences can sometimes be made more formal by adding words which aren't necessary to their meaning. This is common when making polite requests:

"Do you want to dance?"

"Would you be so kind as to do me the honor of dancing with me?"

The second is much more formal -- the request is "softened" by the addition of unnecessary words.

If anyone disagrees with what I've listed above, please leave a comment. One person's opinion is hardly fact.


There are no simple rules for a learner to recognize the various style levels of a foreign language. On the contrary, it needs a long period of reading novels, literature, newspapers, magazines, and other various text sorts. As a learner you can only rely on what your dictionary says. The OALD labels to abide, to purport, to allege as formal, verbs you won't probably find in the first five years of studying English.

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