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Formal vs Informal English

Formal vs Informal English

How to find the right tone when speaking English

When I talk in English to Italians (something I do a lot because of my job), I am always struck by the fact that people here are either too formal in the way they speak or, conversely, too informal. The result is a sort of awkward hybrid, a bit like someone in black tie skateboarding or a gangsta rapper conducting a symphony orchestra. In this article, I will give you some examples of language that isn’t quite right for the situation, as well as some tips on how you can make your English sound more natural, especially when you’re talking to native speakers.

Is Your English Too Formal?

There is a reason why Italians often sound too formal when they are using English. Formal words in English come mainly from Latin or French, for example if you want to move a meeting to a later time, you can postpone it: 

The meeting was postponed until the following week. 

The word “postpone” is quite formal, so it usually appears in official communications, such as a company email. And it’s usually written:

Please notes that the scheduled meeting with our counterparts in the London office has been postponed. The meeting will now take place in two weeks’ time, on the 24th January.

If you are speaking to someone in a normal, everyday way – e.g. talking to a colleague at work or chatting on the phone to a business contact, it would sound a bit strange to say “Can we postpone the meeting?”. It sounds too formal, cold and official. A more natural thing to say would be:

Look, I’m really busy this week. Can we put the meeting off until next week?

If you “put something off” it means you postpone or delay it. “Put off” is one of those infamous phrasal verbs that native English speakers habitually use but which cause endless headaches for non-natives.

Just to complicate matters, there are two different ways of using “put off” in this sentence. You can either say “to put the meeting off” or “to put off the meeting”: both are correct. And another native speaker habit is to use the word “push” instead of “put” in this typical business English expression:

Sorry, I’m running late today. Can we push the meeting back to 5pm?

And again, this is another separable phrasal verb, so it could also be “Can we push back the meeting”.

(A thing to note here is that if you put / push back a meeting, you actually move it forward on the time line. But if you say “Can we bring it forward?” it means “Can we make it earlier”. No wonder English often has foreign learners throwing their hands in the air: the language is full of illogical expressions and bizarre paradoxes that native speakers simply take for granted.)

Robert’s Business English Advice in a Nutshell

Always use formal or informal English in the right situation!

Can we postpone our meeting? – This makes you sound like the Italian Ambassador to the UK communicating with Downing St.

Can we put off the meeting until next week? – This sounds human and natural.

Article by Robert Dennis for Easy Milano

Robert Dennis is a writer and Business English teacher based in Milan. He has been teaching for other 30 years both in the UK and in Italy. A long-time collaborator with John Peter Sloan, Robert published Business English (Gribaudo) in 2020. The book was launched with “Il Sole 24 Ore” and sold in newsstands throughout Italy. Robert has a website for people who want to learn Business English: PayAsYouLearn.com. The site features keywords and phrases, audio and exercises to help professionals improve their language skills. A graduate in English from Oxford University, Robert is a regular contributor to Easy Milano who often writes about plays staged in English in Milan and other cultural events in the city. He is also a translator and “buongustaio” who loves Italian food! robertdennis.it

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    Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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