The difference between formal and informal styles is mainly in the vocabulary used and the way sentences are constructed. Think about the way you speak in everyday conversations compared with the style of writing you find in academic books, business letters and essays.
Informal tone is conveyed through
- Phrasal verbs
- Sentence structure
Vocabulary – your choice of words – is very important. Again, there are alternatives to formal vocabulary, some of which are more informal than others. For example, you can substitute ‘kids’ for ‘children’ or ‘things’ for ‘possessions’, or even ‘stuff’ which is even more informal.
Phrasal verbs are an informal equivalent of single, more formal verbs. For example, ‘to get in touch with’ is an informal version of ‘to contact’; ‘to say sorry’ is informal whereas ‘to apologise’ is formal. For most formal verb forms, there is a phrasal verb alternative and using them is a good way to make your writing sound casual and friendly.
Sentence structure is the way that phrases and clauses are used to form simple and complex sentences. In general, the sentence structure in informal sentences is simpler and more direct. Since you are writing to a friend, you do not have to quite so concerned about politeness, you can be much more casual and expressing how you feel directly is fine.
Punctuation in informal letters can include exclamation marks to show you are joking or to emphasise your point. You can and should use contractions instead of long forms, just as you do when you are speaking, for example, ‘you’re, I’d, haven’t’, etc.
Conventions, in the context of a letters, are set phrases used for beginning and ending letters. They are different depending on whether it is a formal or informal letter. Informal letters start with “Dear <name>” and end with either “Love from <name>”, “All the best, <name> or “Cheers, <name>” (the last two are sometimes the preferred form between 2 male friends).
Look at the example task below:
A friend has written to you asking for advice about a problem at work. You have had a similar problem in the past.
Write a reply to your friend. In your letter:
- tell your friend you understand the problem
- explain what happened to you in the past
- suggest possible solutions to the problem
Now read the model response:
It was great to get your letter, although I was shocked to hear your news about your boss. It sounds very similar to the situation I was in last year, so I know how awful you must feel. Maybe I can give you some suggestions?
In my case, my boss kept picking holes in my work and putting me down in front of my workmates. Sometimes it embarrassed me but most of the time, it just really got up my nose. In the end, I had enough and decided to have it out with her and this put a stop to the problem straight away.
Why don’t you approach your boss and tell him how you’re feeling? You could meet formally at work and take a colleague along to back you up. Or you could arrange to meet after work for a drink and bring up the subject casually. Either way, I think you really need to tell him how his attitude is affecting you and your work.
I really hope you can get this situation sorted as soon as possible. Good luck with whatever you decide to do and keep in touch.
Love from Louise
Features of the letter that make it informal:
Beginning: Dear Angie
Opening line: Thanks for your letter – it was great to hear from you after so long!
Stating the purpose: Maybe I can give you some suggestions?
Informal choice of language:
Phrasal verbs: picking holes in; putting me down; got up my nose; had enough; have it out with her; put a stop to; talk things over
Vocabulary:/phrases: workmates; straight away; get this situation sorted
Use of contractions: don’t; you’re
Ending: Keep in touch. Love from Louise
Do’s and don’ts for informal letters in the IELTS exam:
Do not write like you would in a text message to a friend
Do not use abbreviations like ‘luv’ or ‘bcuz’
Do not use acronyms like ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG’ and never use emoticons
Do remember that this is an English test and your grammar and spelling must be correct
Do use contractions like ‘I’ve’, ‘I’d’ and ‘I’m’
Do use language that expresses emotions and conveys how you feel
Click on the button below for a free downloadable list of opening and closing lines you can use in your informal IELTS letter.