Formal and informal language in dissertations/essays

Essays and theses/dissertations must be written in formal academic English, because informal writing involving the use of colloquialisms and slang language is frowned upon in the academic world.

In this context, universities, academic institutions and journal article publishers set a specific standard for the formal language used in academic manuscripts. Informal style of writing may be suitable in journalistic reports, novels or books, but not in a Master's or PhD thesis, journal article or other scientific or scholarly papers.

But, first, what is formal and informal language?

Let's see what Cambridge Dictionary says about formal and informal language:

“We use formal language in situations that are serious or that involve people we don’t know well. Informal language is more commonly used in situations that are more relaxed and involve people we know well. Formal language is more common when we write; informal language is more common when we speak. However, there are times where writing can be very informal, for example, when writing postcards or letters to friends, emails or text messages. There are also examples where spoken English can be very formal, for example, in a speech or a lecture. Most uses of English are neutral; that is, they are neither formal nor informal. Formal language and informal language are associated with particular choices of grammar and vocabulary.

Contractions, relative clauses without a relative pronoun and ellipsis are more common in informal language.”

Let's also see what Oxford Dictionary says about it:

"You tend to find formal language in academic journals or official documents and notices where it brings an extra degree of seriousness to the subject. As a general rule, it isn't appropriate for everyday situations.

Here are some examples of formal words with their equivalents in standard English - notice that the formal words are often longer than the standard terms.

It can be tempting to use formal vocabulary in the hope that it will add more weight to what you are saying, or just sound generally more impressive or sophisticated. You should generally try to resist this temptation. Using formal English in everyday situations can make your writing sound pompous or pretentious. You may also make what you've written sound unintentionally funny, as some writers deliberately choose formal vocabulary to create a comic effect."

What are the differences between formal and informal language?

a) - Contractions
The first difference between formal and informal academic language is related to the use of contractions.
A contraction is basically a simplied form of two words merged together into one.
For instance:
They have (they've)
We are (we're)
They do not (they don't)
I had better (I'd better)
They would (they'd)
They shall (they'll)
She is (she's)

While writing your dissertation or thesis or any other academic paper, DO NOT use contractions. Use the full form of the two words.

b) - Phrasal verbs
A dissertation/thesis or essay is not the right place to use a phrasal verb. But what is a phrasal verb?
Simply, a phrasal verb is a verb that consists of two or more words - for instance:
Carry out
Set out
Go beyond
Sweep across
Lay out
go through

The authors of academic papers are not expected to use phrasal verbs in their writing. So what to do then?
Simply use single-word verbs:
Carry out (you can use: conduct, perform, execute - depending on the context)
Go beyond (you can use: exceed, transcend, surpass - depending on the context)
Go through (experience, suffer, undergo - depending on the context)
Give rise to (cause, engender, induce - depending on the context)
Point out (highlight, state, note - depending on the context)

Look for (seek, pursue - depending on the context)

c) Do not end the sentece with a phrasal verb/preposition
While the use of phrasal verbs is not recommended in academic writing, it is particularly frowned upon to use it at the end of a sentence, or indeed finish the sentence on a preposition.
Let's illustrate with examples:
The research has decided on the experiment that he will carry out. (a phrasal verb)

This chapter discusses what the participants in the study went through. (a phrasal verb)
This essay is aimed at discussing the phenomenon in depth and this is what the author was praised for. (finishing on a preposition)
This weakness in the thesis defence is what he was criticised for. (finishing on a preposition)

d) Formal vs informal words
In English there are simply words that are formal and others that are informal. MA or PhD students writing their dissertations or essays or journal article authors must stick to using formal words.

Again, let's clarify this with some concrete examples:
Kids (informal) children (formal)
Food (informal) comestibles (formal)
Drink (informal) beverage (formal)
Buy (informal) purchase (formal)
Make (informal) Produce/manufacture (formal)
Many (informal) numerous/multiple (formal)
Big (informal) considerable (formal)
So (informal) therefore/hence (formal)
Choose (informal) select (formal)
Maybe (informal) perhaps (formal)
See (informal) observe (formal)

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