The Gap Between Informal and Formal Language

Had a thought when I first woke up this morning. In language, there’s a value in both following and ignoring the rules.

On the right is Mark Twain. On the left is the stage actor John T. Raymond.
Twain’s writing, even his essays, had very little in common with academic prose. And yet in spite of that–or because of it–he is heralded as one of America’s best writers.

When you’re in school and learning to write, you’re given pretty specific expectations, which are set by the academic community. In college and grad school (before I dropped out) I became very adept at writing clear, grammatically sound, sophisticated text. And even at the highest levels, this kind of writing tends to follow a standard formula of thesis statements, topic sentences, and logical conclusions.

But just as academia has a tendency to be out of touch with mainstream sensibilities, its language has a tendency to be out of touch with the way most people communicate. You might derisively say that popular books and magazines are “dumbed down” for people, but nobody in their right mind would choose to read an academic journal over Cosmo, Harry Potter, or USA Today. (Well, maybe over USA Today.)

I did well in school, and I’m glad that I learned how “smart people” write. At the very least, I’m not intimidated by scholarly text.

But in my personal writing, including on my website, I try to write with a breezier, more natural style. I’m trying to be more engaging and to mimic the way I might talk with my friends, even if that means throwing in a couple sentence fragments and not carrying out arguments to their bitter, logical conclusions.

What I’ve discovered: both styles of writing are difficult. It’s difficult to follow rules perfectly, while still expressing coherent, original thoughts. And it’s also difficult to break those rules in order to achieve your communication goal more effectively.

The easiest way to explain it is that formal writing intends to win you over with logic (or something approximating logic), while informal writing intends to win you over with charm.

What about foreign language learning?

This dichotomy between “formal” and “natural” language extends to foreign languages as well.

When you’re starting out in a new language, you of course want to learn and follow the rules. The very basic grammar you learn starting out is, for the most part, inflexible.

But as you go along, pay attention to how people actually use the language. Ask yourself:

  • What kinds of words are omitted in everyday speech?
  • What grammatical rules are ignored?
  • When people are making a point, how are their arguments structured?
  • Do people you meet try to make you think, or do they try to charm you?

In some languages, the gap between formal and informal language is huge. Academic and media Arabic, for example, is practically a different language from spoken Arabic, with each Arab region having its own spoken dialect. Other languages might not have such a defined split, but their academic prose will still usually be “elevated” from the way common folk talk.

Am I saying to throw out the rule book? Not at all. As the old saying goes, you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them.

I’m just saying that when you are learning a language–whether its your native language or a new one–you tend to get tunnel vision and really focus in on learning the rules. But at some point, if you want to be truly skillful, you’re going to have to figure out how to bend these rules.

You’re going to have to figure out how to stop working for language and instead make language work for you.