The Three Levels of Language

Lisa R. Parker

There are three levels of formality in spoken and written language. These levels or tones of language impact on communicative style. Every speaker or writer adjusts her language to the various contexts in which she employs it. I am speaking here about the notion of style and the related dimension of formality.

In our speech or writing, at times we are more careful, and at times we are more relaxed, just as at times we are more relaxed in other kinds of behavior. In other words, different modes of writing and speaking call for different usage of language, just as styles of dress are appropriate to different social occasions. Each language has its own way of doing this. The more formal a situation, the more attention we pay to our language. Every educated native speaker has the possibility of conscious choice of a less or more formal style. The forms and functions of any language vary, not only according to geography, but also in synchrony with social and cultural levels.

There are three usage dimensions of English: informal, semi-formal, and very formal. The levels of formality in which the English is used are called registers. These levels reflect the context in which they occur. No one style of vocabulary and grammar is superior to another. It’s their appropriateness to the context that matters. But we shouldn’t settle for substandard English. Standard language should be a universal goal in education.

In the following situations, you might find:

1. Informal – colloquialisms, slang, informal vocabulary, regional words and expressions, and casual expressions. Slang is the most informal level of language. We use informal language all the time in everyday conversation. It is used in everyday writing and speaking.

2. Semi-formal – standard vocabulary, conventional sentence structure, and few or no contractions (full forms like I have, do not, etc.). In the semi-formal writing, colloquialisms are much less common. For example, the indefinite pronoun one appears in place of the more conversational you. You will find this tone in assigned essays to students.

3. Very Formal – standard vocabulary (or more learned words), technical jargon, and complex syntax. Formal words occur more often. This style you will find in a professional journal.

It is important to note that an author’s tone and attitude are the combination of diction, vocabulary, syntax, and rhetorical devices used to create the specific writing piece with which she intends to inform her public.

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