This page explains the difficulty that English language learners have in choosing the right style.

In some ways people learning English have it easier than those learning German or French or an Asian language. Because American culture is so popular and so pervasive, many people see and hear English every day.

For example, in Germany there has been a big increase recently in the number of television or newspaper advertisements that are partly or wholly in English, and a majority of the pop music on the radio is in English. [ More ] This constant exposure to English obviously will help to speed up the learning process.

However, there is a potential problem in learning English this way. You must be very careful with the words you have heard or seen because it is easy to use them in the wrong context. For example, you have heard the word kids so many times that you think it is a synonym for children (in the same way that easy and simple are synonyms).

Yet when you ask your rather reserved English company chairman at a business function, How are the wife and kids?, he reacts with some irritation. This is because he feels that you have been too familiar with him. The words the wife (instead of your wife, or even your lady wife) and kids are informal words but the situation in which you have used it is a formal one. This kind of mistake is a mistake of style Some grammarians use the term register instead of style when referring to the degree of formality of a particular stretch of language..

@Most native speakers switch between different styles without even realizing that they are doing it.~ A classic example concerns the mother who has been shouting at her children when the telephone rings. Immediately and automatically she changes the tone and volume of her voice and her word choice. Indeed, it would be very unusual if we were to speak in the same way all the time, e.g. with our friends when watching a football match and with strangers at a funeral.

While the native speaker can immediately and automatically choose the correct style, it is of course much more difficult for the learner of English, particularly if some of the English words he knows have been learned in one context (e.g. from a pop song or TV advert) and are used in another (e.g. in a shop, or at a business meeting.)

Using the language of pop songs in formal situations is one error of style that some learners of English might make, but other learners make the opposite style mistake; i.e. they use language that is too formal for everyday situations.

Consider the following situation, for example: You stop someone on a London street and say: Please would you be so kind as to direct me to the nearest post office. I desire to purchase some stamps. This is the kind of language you might expect from someone who has learned from an old-fashioned grammar book. The English is perfect but the style is quite wrong.

Perhaps even more problematic is the mixing of styles within a single utterance. Imagine that your boss calls you at home and asks if you can meet her to discuss a project you have been working on. You reply: I must most regretfully decline your entreaty coz I'm just off down the pub with me mates. Your boss would be right to question your sanity.


Style can be divided into three main categories: formal - neutral - informal. So, for example, children is the neutral word, kids is informal and offspring is formal (and slightly humorous). Decide on the style category of the highlighted words in the following sentences, and see if you can suggest an alternative in one of the other styles.

  • This is a cool book. You really should read it!
  • Where are the nearest public conveniences, please?
  • You resemble your sister.
  • She collects her daughter from school every day.
  • Do you fancy a drink?
  • At what time does the show commence?
  • You need to see a shrink!
  • What's the matter?
  • That was a splendid repast!
  • No food may be eaten on the premises.
  • Someone has purloined my calculator.
  • It cost me 20 quid.
  • This is a cool book. Cool* - informal / very good - neutral / marvellous - formal
  • Where are the nearest public conveniences , please? Public conveniences - formal / toilets - neutral / loos* - informal
  • You resemble your sister. Resemble - formal / look like - neutral
  • She collects her daughter from school every day . Collects - neutral / picks up* - informal
  • Do you fancy a drink? Do you fancy - informal / would you like - neutral / would you care for - formal
  • At what time does the show commence? Commence - formal / start - neutral
  • You need to see a shrink! Shrink - informal / psychiatrist - neutral
  • What's the matter? What's the matter? - neutral / What's up - informal
  • That was a splendid repast! Splendid repast - formal / a very good meal - neutral / lovely grub - informal
  • No food may be eaten on the premises. Premises - formal / here or in this building - neutral
  • Someone has purloined my calculator. Purloin - formal / steal - neutral / nick - informal
  • It cost me 20 quid. Quid - informal / pounds - neutral


In fact, style is not as simple as I have made out in these sentences. Although cool, pick up and loo are listed as informal, they are not informal in the same way. Cool is a slang word used mainly by young people in all parts of the English-speaking world. It sounds faintly ridiculous coming from anyone approaching middle age or older.

Pick up is informal, but is used in informal situations by anyone of any age. Loo is also informal but is used almost exclusively in England, and not usually by people of higher social standing.

Furthermore, different people will have different opinions about the degree of formality of a particular word or expression.

Here's a short video from the BBC about formal and informal English.