Formal or Casual Language: Examples

Sometimes real examples of writing issues are easier to understand than lengthy, complicated explanations. In this new series (see the list of “Real Examples of Various Writing Issues“) you’ll see various real-life writing problems and suggested solutions.

“Water has become the most precious commodity throughout the state!” [Frustrated police chief ranting…]
–> This sounds way too formal for a frustrated cop–or a rant by anyone, for that matter. More casual, direct, strong dialogue needed here.

“Was I ever surprised upon waking up in the morning from a dream in which I listened to a psychic telling me everything….”

–> Be careful about using “casual speech” phrases like “Was I every surprised…” when writing. While we often talk like this, it is better in a book (except where you’re writing dialogue) to use a bit more formal language. You might say: “I was amazed upon waking in the morning…”

“… forcing me to question everything, my beliefs, my intentions, my life existence, the list goes on and on.”
–>I’d suggest you leave out “the list goes on and on.” Phrases like this slow down the flow. Perhaps: “… forcing me to question everything, including my beliefs, my intentions, my very life existence.”

“My health was a different kettle of fish.”
–> You are using some pretty clichéd expressions … and does the metaphor (a different kettle of fish) fit the topic (my health)?

“My hair was falling out big time.”
–> You are using an informal/slang phrase here. Is it intentional, such as to create a sense of this period of your life? If not, I suggest using a more descriptive and/or formal word, phrase, or simile than “big time.” Perhaps “astonishingly” or “at an astounding rate” … or perhaps “My hair was shedding like a deer in spring” or “My hair was falling out in clumps, leaving bald spots scattered over my scalp.” Any of these would create a much stronger picture in the reader’s mind than “big time” and would not sound so slangy.

“She was a huge guy magnet, and there was no shortage of guys. She knew precisely what she was looking for in a guy.”
–> You’ve used “guy” 3 times in basically one line. You might want to use a different synonym for at least one of these instances, or you could just delete the phrase “in a guy.” Also, “a huge guy magnet” and every “guys” are pretty cliched and very informal expressions. They might be suitable for dialogue, but I’d suggest you avoid them in the narrative. You might also want to consider rewriting the two sentences as one much more concise sentence–or instead of “telling” us, why not “show” us through action, instead?

“He nods his head, as if in conversation with himself, and mutters a few words, sotto voce.
–> While I admire your range of vocabulary such as “nonchalance, cacophony, sotto voce, demeanour, salacious,” I do have a couple concerns. First, who is your audience? If a “general” audience, some of these terms might be difficult for some of your readers, and not only make them wonder what you mean but also break the flow of the piece as they stumble over the words. Also, using terms like “demeanour” and “sotto voce” to describe an obviously lower-class person, as you are doing in this story, seems to me to be a bit confusing in the development of his character. (On the other hand, if you are introducing this sort of language because of the setting—courtroom—it might be suitable. Or if you are using wording that is meant to be “British” in tone and vocabulary—it does remind me of some books I have read by British authors–but those were set in different places, times, and social classes. If you have a good reason for using this level of vocabulary, do go ahead, but think carefully about why you are using each word and if it fits the situation.

“I … I am not sure” said old man Smith, stumbling for the first time, and trying to rack his brains.
–> “old man Smith” sounds somewhat derogatory, yet in the story, he comes across as a kindly, helpful older gentleman. Perhaps you might write “I … I am not sure,” said elderly Mr. Smith… OR “I … I am not sure,” elderly Mr. Smith stuttered, trying to rack his brains.

“I  was imagining how powerful of a moment this must have been.”
–> Delete “of” – Technically it’s poor grammar, though we do use it in casual conversation. I know you’re attempting to use a “casual conversational” approach … but it sounds a bit too casual in the context of this devotional article

“Besides, the truth is, I was in more of the wrong than her.”
–>Technically: “… than she” OR “… than she was.” Hint: Try saying: “than her was”!

“They wanted to buy some $.005 candies with their birthday money.
–> Do you mean “half-penny”? Because that’s what $.005 is! Furthermore, you should write this out in words: “They wanted to buy some penny [or nickel?] candies with their birthday money.”

“How’s that for a #MomFail?”
–> I suggest you just use: Mom Fail. It is likely a number of your readers, especially older ones, will not be familiar with the Twitter-style format, and using the hashtag will cause a bit of a “bump” in the flow of the article which you will be publishing in a paper format (though it might be more acceptable in an online blog post or social media status/note). In a fairly formal print article, I would suggest restricting the use of this kind of hashtag format to a quotation of a tweet, if necessary. In fact, you may even want to reconsider the use of the term “Mom Fail” if you think a fairly large portion of your readers may not be familiar with it.

Your turn!

Did reading the above examples help you understand the need to self-edit carefully, to ask a beta-reader to check your writing, and to think carefully whether the formal or casual language in your story is accurate and/or makes sense? What did you learn from these examples?

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