Formal or Personal Writing?

Since IELTS papers are checked and marked by university people, you are supposed to make your style purely academic. But wait! Forget all these and choose to be personal if you are writing a letter to your friend or family.

How to use personal style?

  • personal phrases e.g How are you?
  • idiomatic language e.g got a lot in your plate
  • contractions e.g He’s
  • personal questions e.g Do you remember my cousin Victor?
Dear Jane,

How are you? It was great to hear from you. Thanks so much for inviting me to your birthday party next Saturday. It sounds great, and ….

Do you remember my cousin Victor? He’s the one who’s been living in Singapore for the last year. Well, he’s flying in for a visit and I promised I’d show him around. He’s only going to be in town for the day, so I really can’t get out of it.

I really want to get together, though. How about coffee next week or the week after? I know you’ve got a lot on your plate at the moment, but i’ll give you a call and we can sort out the details over the phone. Maybe we can check out that new cafe near the library. I hear their coffee is to die for. Does that sound interesting?

Have a great party! Hope to catch up with you soon!

How to use formal style?

To do this, you will need to focus on using:

  • nominalisation
  • passive voice
  • academic vocabulary.

Nominalisation


In academic writing, nouns are often used to replace verbs. This is called nominalisation.

How does nominalisation make the style formal?

Nominalisation makes the style formal because it makes the writing impersonal. Compare the following sentences.

  1. I go to the movies every week.
  2. Going to the movies is a weekly habit.

In A, the verb (go) has a personal pronoun (I). The focus is on the person, so the sentence is personal. The style is therefore informal.

In B, the verb (go) has changed to the noun (going) which now becomes impersonal. This is an example of nominalisation. Now, the focus is on the idea of (going to the movies), rather than on the person doing the action. The sentence is impersonal and therefore formal.

Let’s look at some more examples of nominalisation

Compare Paragraph A and Paragraph B from an essay about the advantages and disadvantages of young children watching TV. You will see that Paragraph A and Paragraph B have the same meaning, but Paragraph B is more formal.

Paragraph A   The first advantage is that young children can learn many things when they watch TV. They learn about the alphabet and numbers from programs made especially for children. They also learn many facts about animals and the environment from the many nature programs that the television stations broadcast. They learn to appreciate the environment. In addition, they see how different TV presenters act with each other and therefore they can learn how to copy this behaviour. As a result, the children learn to feel good about themselves and to feel confident.    Repeats the pronoun ‘they’ + verb. This makes the focus of the essay ‘the children’, not the idea of the ‘advantages’.
Paragraph B   The first advantage is that watching TV can lead to the acquisition of knowledge in young children. Literacy and numeracy skills are learnt from programs made especially for children. Factual information about animals and the environment is broadcast on many different nature programs. Therefore, an appreciation of the environment is developed. In addition, modelling the social interaction of a variety of presenters on TV is encouraged and this can lead to the development of good social skills. As a result, self-esteem and confidence are gained.    Uses nominalisation to make the style impersonal and therefore more academic. The focus is on the advantages, which are expressed by nouns.

How can I change verbs into nouns?

There are three different ways to do this.

Change the verb into its gerund form.

‘…when they watch TV’  ‘Watching TV…’.

Change the verb into its noun form.

‘They learn to appreciate the environment…’ ‘appreciation of the environment…’

Change the verb into a different noun that has the same meaning but is more academic.

They can learn many things…’  ‘The acquisition of knowledge…’.

Passive voice


How does the passive voice make the style formal?

The passive voice is used when the writer wants to take away the focus from the person or thing doing the action. This makes the writing style impersonal and therefore formal and academic. Look at the following sentences.

A.Active:I’ll have to do a lot of work to finish the project.
B.Passive:A considerable amount of work needs to be done in order to complete the project in the specified time.

In Sentence A, the subject is the person doing the action (I).

In Sentence B, the subject is a noun group (a considerable amount of work). The person doing the action is no longer the focus, so B is impersonal. This makes the sentence more formal and academic.

Let’s look at more examples of how the passive voice makes the style impersonal and therefore more academic.

Look again at Paragraphs A and B about the advantages of young children watching TV. Some active verbs in Paragraph A are in bold. In Paragraph B, the verbs in the passive are highlighted. Compare the bold and the highlighted words.

Paragraph A

The first advantage is that young children can learn many things while they are watching TV. They learn about the alphabet and numbers from programs made especially for children. They also learn many facts about animals and the environment from the many nature programs that the television stations broadcast. They learn to care about the environment. In addition, they see how different TV presenters act with each other and therefore they can learn how to copy this behaviour. As a result, the children learn to feel good about themselves and to feel confident.

Paragraph B

The first advantage is that watching TV can lead to the acquisition of knowledge in young children. Literacy and numeracy skills are learnt from programs made especially for children. Factual information about animals and the environment is broadcast on many different nature programs. Therefore, an appreciation of the environment is developed. In addition, modelling the social interaction of a variety of presenters on TV is learnt and this can lead to the development of good social skills. As a result, self-esteem and confidence are gained.

How is the passive voice formed?

SUBJECT+VERB ‘to be’+PARTICIPLE

Examples

Simple present…A new tax is introduced each year.
New taxes are introduced each year by the government.
Present continuous…A new tax is being introduced today.
New taxes are being introduced by the government today.
Simple past…A new tax was introduced late last year.
New taxes were introduced late last year.
Present perfect…A new tax has been introduced every year.
New taxes have been introduced every year.

Academic vocabulary


Why does word choice influence the writing style?

You are writing for an educated reader. Therefore, you should use formalacademic vocabulary. Do not use informal or colloquial vocabulary.

Compare the following informal and formal sentences. You can see that both sentences have the same meaning but different word choices.

A.Informal:I go to the movies every week.
B.Formal:Going to the movies is my weekly habit.
A.Informal:I’m going to have to do heaps of work to finish the project on time.
B.Formal:A considerable amount of work needs to be done in order to complete the project at the specified time.

Let’s look at more examples of how word choice can make your writing formal and academic.

Look again at Paragraphs A and B about the advantages of young children watching TV.

Some words in Paragraph A are in bold. In Paragraph B a different, more academic word with the same meaning is used. Compare the bold with the highlighted words.

Paragraph A

The first advantage is that young children can learn many things when they watch TV. They learn about the alphabet and numbers from programs made especially for children. They also learn many facts about animals and the environment from the many nature programs that the television stations broadcast. They learn to care about the environment. In addition, they see how different TV presenters act with each other and therefore they can learn how to copy this behaviour. As a result, the children learn to feel good about themselves and to feel confident.

Paragraph B

The major benefit is that watching TV can lead to the acquisition of knowledge in young children. Literacy and numeracy skills are developed from programs made especially for children. Factual information about animals and the environment are broadcast on many different nature programs. Therefore, an appreciation of the environment is developed. In addition, modelling the social interaction of a variety of presenters on TV is encouraged and this can lead to the development of good social skills. Consequently, self-esteem and confidence are gained.

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