Informal expressions

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Expressions that are informal or even colloquial may be too informal for formal academic or business writing or speaking contexts. These are not necessarily wrong, but are dispreferred or considered less appropriate for such types of writing or discourse, and more formal expressions are preferred. It might be okay to use a few of these in certain contexts, but regular or frequent use of these will make a paper sound unprofessional.

1 General characteristics

Informal expressions, compared to their more formal counterparts, may be distinguished by the following characteristics.

Informal expressions Formal expressions Informal cf. formal examples
Words that are more general or less precise in meaning Terms with more specific, precise meaning or scope people vs. Canadians, voters, participants, etc.
Shorter, more common words (often from the Old Germanic or Old French parts of the English lexicon) Longer, multi-syllabic terms from Latin, Greek, modern French, or other languages sick vs. infection
Common, high-frequency words, e.g., high school level vocabulary Less common, low-frequency vocabulary; specialized vocabulary of certain fields; college or post-graduate level vocabulary machine vs. laparoscope, EKG, eye tracker
Words that have an emotional, biased, or negative tone Neutral sounding vocabulary grammar Nazi vs. pedantic, prescriptivist
Words or phrases that are more metaphorical More transparent, neutral and precise terminology don't beat around the bush vs. equivocate, prevaricate
Contractions Full forms can't vs. cannot

Some common examples of informal expressions include the following.

Colloquial and slang vocabulary
  • That's cool. Just chock it up to experience.
  • They're in cahoots with the mafia.

Regional or dialect expressions
  • Tell me it ain't so.
  • We gotta schlep this couch up the stairs. ("schlep" = New York slang)
  • Oy! There's some bloke making off with a TV!

Expletives or taboo expressions
  • Bloody hell, it's bloody cold out there.
  • I don't give a damn anymore. Let's just go to the pub and get pissed.

Sexist, racist, or discriminatory language

It should be pretty obvious that language that even implies negative attitudes toward women, minorities, ethnic groups, members of the LGBT community, etc. are inappropriate.

Gender-biased language

This includes terms that use masculine words for people who could have female members.

  • Postman → letter carrier, postal worker
  • Businessman → business people
  • Policeman → police officer
  • Girl (if referring to an adult woman) → female student, female coworker, etc.

Likewise for possessive adjectives:

  • Each student must bring his identification. → his/her identification; OR: All students must bring their identification.

2 Sentence types

Some informal types of sentences can be made more formal.

Using question and answer format in an essay
  • This leads to the following questions. Do aliens fly around the Earth? Are they really spying on us? Are they really kidnapping people? The evidence says "no."
  • Can they still be considered to have social value? Yes, they can certainly still be appreciated by society.

Using quotation style and quoted expressions to present and develop points.
  • Some people on the Internet keep asking questions like "Are aliens spying on us?" or "Are they really kidnapping people?" The evidence says "no."

Overuse of quotations

Sometimes quotations are used when they are not really necessary, especially common quotations. To avoid sounding too informal, they can be deleted if they are not really necessary; otherwise, they can be paraphrased without direct quotations.

  • Can they still be considered to have social value? Well, as Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name is still a rose," so yes, they can still be appreciated by society.

Idioms, clichés (common, overused expressions) and aphorisms (common phrases that convey popular sentiments).
  • He's older than dirt.
  • I wasn’t born yesterday.
  • There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
  • He's driving her up the wall.

3 Nouns and pronouns

In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific noun, which will depend on the context.

Informal More formal
chance opportunity
cop police officer
crook criminal
dad father
folks people, family, relatives
girl (if referring to an adult woman) woman, female coworker, female student, etc.
job occupation
kids children, teenagers
man males, (male) participants / subjects, male voters, etc.
mom mother
net, the net the Internet ("Internet" is capitalized)
part portion, section, sector, segment, aspect
person, people (often vague) individual, Canadians, researchers, subjects, voters, males, participants
stuff things, material, objects, matter
thanks gratitude, appreciation
thing object, device, item, situation, circumstance, subject, element ...
way (e.g., a way to do something) manner, method, means, methodology, instrument, aspect
wife spouse
women females, (female) participants, etc.

Likewise, the following indefinite pronouns can be replaced with more specific nouns.

  • someone, anyone → an individual, a Canadian, a researcher, a particular subject, one particular voter, certain participants
  • something, anything → an object, a device, an item, a subject, an element
  • somewhere, anywhere → a certain location, some unknown village, the city of Brighton
  • everywhere → all locations, all counties of Alberta
  • everyone → all the citizens of Liverpool, a majority of residents in Cleveland
  • everything → all atoms in the universe

4 Verbs

Second person

The second person you in writing sounds very informal or personal, and it is generally avoided in all forms of academic writing. Likewise, second-person verb forms are avoided, including commands like Do not do this.

First person

The first person I and we can sound informal, especially the singular I and me. These are generally avoided in formal writing, except when the authors need to comment directly, e.g., when explaining their rationale for doing something. First person is rarely used in science writing, occasionally in social science writing, and somewhat more often in humanities writing, such as in literature studies. If first person is really needed, we is better than I.

Standard contractions

It is preferable to write out full forms instead of contractions

  • don't → do not
  • can't → can not, cannot
  • we've → we have

Colloquial contractions

It is better to avoid colloquial contractions such as these.

  • ain't
  • doncha
  • innit? (UK English)

See also
  1. Easily confused verbs such as say, tell, talk

4.1 Common verbs

Many common verbs that are frequently used in English may have fairly general meanings, or may sound informal. This can include more idiomatic verbal expressions They can be substituted as follows.

Common verb More specific
choose select
free release
get better improve
get worse worsen, deteriorate
give the go ahead authorize, permit
keep retain
kid, kidding joking, jesting
let allow, permit, grant
need to require, is required
say no refuse, reject, deny
show demonstrate, illustrate, portray, indicate, exhibit
use utilize, make use of

4.2 Light verbs

These are common, everyday verbs that are rather non-specific in meaning. These are distinguished from other verbs, in that (1) they are the first verbs learned in the language; (2) they have a great variety of meanings, and thus can be less specific semantically; and (3) they are often used in idioms, set expressions, and collocational expressions. In academic writing, many times it is better if these can be replaced with more specific verbs, and the choice will depend on the context. However, in set expressions like 'get married' it may be difficult to replace them.

Light verb More specific
be exist, occur, equal, consist of, comprise (of), typify, appear, seem, tend...
do perform, execute, carry out, implement, manage...
get obtain, acquire, come into possession (of), capture
give provide, yield, produce, lead to, impart...
go, run, come proceed, journey, travel, progress, exceed...
have possess, contain, exhibit ...
In descriptive phrases, have can be replaced with with, e.g. "A patient who had the flu" → "A patient with the flu"
make create, produce, facilitate...
set, put place, position, arrange...

4.3 Phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs

When possible, phrasal verbs should be replaced with more formal verbs (often, verbs of Latin origin) with more specific meanings. For example, many ESL students use find out when a better expression for formal writing would be discover, determine, ascertain. Since phrasal verbs often have many meanings, the choice will depend on the context. The same applies to some VERB + PREPOSITION combinations formed with a fairly common verb.

Phrasal / prep. verb More specific
ask out invite
be about, it's about it concerns; in regard to; this deals with, handles, addresses, explicates
blow up inflate, explode
break down collapse, implode, suspend, collapse
break off suspend, adjourn, abrogate, halt
break out escape; erupt
break up disintegrate, dissolve; end (their) relationship
bring in introduce
bring back return, re-introduce
come after follow, proceed
come back return, resume
come in enter
come up to reach, attain
deal with handle, manage, address
drop out (of) withdraw, cancel, finish, fall
fill in substitute, inform, complete
find out find, discover, ascertain, determine, identify, decide on, assess
get away escape, elude
get by survive, endure
get in touch with contact, establish contact with
give back return
get over recover
give in yield
give up quit, surrender, resign oneself to __
go after follow, proceed, pursue
go against contradict, oppose
go ahead proceed
go around circumvent, circumnavigate, sidestep, ignore, rotate, gyrate, orbit, circumduct, twist, revolve, meander, ramble
go away leave, depart
go before precede
go down decrease, diminish, abate
go on continue, persist
go out (of) exit, diminish, leave, depart, extinguish, cease, die, dim, expire, subside, decline, dwindle, recede, quit, retire, withdraw
go through undergo, endure, pass through, experience, suffer; examine, inspect
go up increase, arise
f*** up bungle, mismanage, mishandle, muddle, spoil, wreck, ruin
keep up maintain; continue
leave out omit, delete
link up connect, get in contact with
look at examine, observe; regard
look for seek
look into examine, investigate
look like resemble
look up to respect, admire
make out discern
make up fabricate, create, invent; comprise, consist (of)
mix up mix, confuse
point out indicate, index, refer to
put in insert, enter
put down deposit; euthanize (a pet)
put off postpone, delay, procrastinate
put down apply
put up (with) tolerate, endure
rack up accumulate
ring up call, telephone
screw up bungle, mismanage, mishandle, muddle, spoil, wreck, ruin
set out depart, leave; display
set up establish
show up arrive, appear
slow down decelerate, decrease speed
speed up accelerate
stand for represent; tolerate
take away remove, excise
take on challenge, oppose
take out excise, remove, clear, exclude, omit, extirpate, destroy
talk about discuss, consider
talk into / out of persuade, convince
think about consider, deliberate, ponder
think of conceive
throw away discard
throw out discard, eject
try out try, test, audition, interview
work on develop

5 Adjectives, adverbials, & other modifiers

In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific word, which will depend on the context.

colloquial more formal
a bit, a little bit slightly, somewhat
a lot of, lots of much, many, numerous, a large number / amount of
again and again repeatedly, continually, continuously (See below for continuously vs. continually)
alright (adj.) adequate, satisfactory
at once immediately
awesome awe-inspiring, incredible, exceptional, wonderful
bad negative, pejorative, poor, ineffective, adverse...
big large, significant
cheap inexpensive; poor quality
cheeky rude, impolite, impudent
childish immature
crazy insane, (mentally) deranged, delusional; misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken, ill-advised, lacking judgment
dumb ill-advised, lacking judgment, misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken
fed up with __ tired of, dissatisfied with, exasperated with, annoyed by/with
fun entertaining
funny humorous
good sufficient, excellent, optimal, ideal, studious, prime, positive, effective, beneficial
huge large, significant, enormous, incredible, gargantuan, gigantic, massive
kind of, sort of somewhat, slightly
laid back relaxed
later subsequent(ly), following
loaded rich, wealthy
main (adj.) primary, principal
mainly primarily, principally
maybe perhaps
next subsequent(ly), following
okay, OK (adj.) adequate, satisfactory, sufficient
pretty (adv.) very, quite (e.g., pretty nice → very nice)
really very, certainly, definitely
really big considerable, very large
right correct; honest, ethical
sick ill
sick of __ tired of, dissatisfied with, annoyed by/with
smart intelligent
stupid, crazy, dumb ill-advised, lacking judgment, misguided, questionable, foolish, unwise, mistaken
tiny small, very small, minute
whole entire, complete
worse inferior
wrong incorrect; unethical, unjust, unfair, immoral, objectionable

Continuously vs. continually

Continuously refers to one constant state or activity that continuous without interruption. Continually refers to multiple actions in one process, or multiple instances of one state, or an action that is sometimes interrupted but continues. Sometimes they are somewhat interchangeable with only that slight difference in nuance.

  • The angry couple argued continually / continuously through the night. (Similar meaning, different nuance; continually suggests one long, unending argument, while continuously implies an unending set of arguments, or multiple instances with breaks in between, that form a whole period of arguing.)

6 Transitional / connector expressions

Some teachers claim that is is "wrong" to start a sentence with a conjunction. This is pedantic and prescriptive, and does not describe how good writers actually write. There is nothing wrong with starting sentences with conjunctions, and good academic and literary writers do so. However, overusing some conjunctions can make a paper sound informal, especially these high-frequency conjunctions and connectors; these can be replaced with others for more variety, better flow, and more specific logical connections among sentences.

  1. But → However, ... ; Yet; In contrast, ... ; To the contrary, ... ; Although; Though; While; Meanwhile; Whereas
  2. So → Thus, ... ; Therefore, ... ; As a result, ...; Hence, ... ; We thus decided ...
Coordinating conjunctions

These are not usually followed by commas, unless another phrase comes before the sentence subject.

X But, I don't think so.
✔️But I don't think so.
X So, we conclude that the hypothesis is correct.
✔️ So we conclude that the hypothesis is correct.
X Then, we move on to the next problem.
✔️ Then we move on to the next problem.
✔️ But, as we explained earlier, this is not ideal.

Conjunctive adverbs

These are adverbs that came to be used as conjunctions to start clauses. These are preceded by a full stop, and followed by a comma. This is true for the conjunctive adverbs thus, therefore, however, otherwise, furthermore, moreover.

X We conducted the experiment carefully, however we found no significant effects.
✔️ We conducted the experiment carefully; however, we found no significant effects.
✔️ We conducted the experiment carefully. However, we found no significant effects.

Ordinal transitions

It is not necessary to use the ordinal or enumerative markers First ... Second ... Third regularly in papers. Using them when the are not really needed can sound mechanical or formulaic. These are used when necessary, e.g., (1) when describing a complex process, or (2) when explaining ideas that are abstract, complex, or hard to follow. Also, writers should pay attention to the following style differences.

  1. American style: First, ... Second, ... Third, ... Finally, ...
  2. British style: Firstly, ... Secondly, ... Thirdly, ... Lastly / Finally, ...
  3. Colloquial style: First of all, ...

Topic transitions

The following expressions are often used at the beginning of a clause or sentence for changing topics. They themselves are not necessarily informal, but can sound informal if overused.

  • as for
  • as to
  • as regards
  • as concerns
  • concerning
  • regarding

In essays and academic papers, they might be used to transition to a related topic, or a previously mentioned topic. Sometimes they can be deleted, or replaced with an appropriate prepositional phrase or other modifier.

  • As for San Francisco, if the buildings had been built to code ... → If these buildings in San Francisco had been build to code ...
  • As for the experimental group, no difference was found. In the experimental group, no difference was found.

Here are some other expressions that can sound informal, especially if overused.

colloquial more formal
Actually, In fact,
And (at the beginning of a sentence) This can be deleted, or if needed, replaced with one of the following:
Also, Then, Additionally, In addition
anyway, anyways This is used informally for changing topics; in formal writing, simply starting a sentence with a full noun topic, or starting a new paragraph, will often suffice. Sometimes, if it used for making a contrast, it can be replaced with the following.
still, notwithstanding, nonetheless, nevertheless, yet
ASAP as soon as possible, at your earliest convenience
besides More formal alternatives are ‘in addition to’ or ‘furthermore’ - e.g., “In addition to these factors, ...”.
first of all first
in a nutshell in summary, to summarize, in conclusion
in the meantime meanwhile, in the interim
in the end finally, at last
like (is) similar to; for example, as, such as (As a connector, like can seem slightly colloquial. However, as a conjunction before verb phrases, or as a preposition, like is generally fine in contemporary formal English)
nowadays currently, recently
plus also, in addition, and, and ... as well, as well as
whether or not whether

Here are some examples of the more informal like, and more formal counterparts. Here, the informal like is used as a conjunction.

  • Don't do like what she did. → Do not do as she has done.
  • Activities like smoking and drinking are not allowed here. → Activities such as smoking and drinking are not allowed here.

Some examples of like that are perfectly fine, particularly when it is used as a preposition.

  • We don't want any characters like him around.
  • She looks just like me.

7 See also

  1. Easily confused verbs such as say, tell, talk
  2. Colloquialisms