i‑Learner Education Centre

Steps to Success » How We Communicate

Sticks And Stones May Break Our Bones, But Formal English Can Never Hurt Us

We pull all kinds of faces and show all kinds of reluctance, on hearing the need to use formal English. Formality, rules, constraints, they are the enemy of a carefree life. These frequently boring appeals to formality are common but if you’ll allow me a question, how much do you know about informal English usage?

Growing up in Hong Kong, despite innumerable channels to English media, we realistically learn English from our schoolteachers and as such we can hardly be faulted if we don’t communicate regularly in English. That said, some of our report cards show we have impeccable English. Yet, if you think about what you learnt at school, you’ll conclude that schools, as institutions, teach and test you in formal English. Grades reflect that. Despite attempts to subjugate the English language into their syllabus, schools have to cherry pick parts that are universal and broadly accepted. Hong Kongers are taught those English rules, which are bound and constrained to allow for minimal ambiguity. This boundedness of formal English is why it is so widely accepted and appreciated, becoming the lingua franca that it is in our global village.

Informal English ranges from colloquial sayings to double negatives, to incorrect syntax. Mastering informal English can be challenging. For example, the proper use of conjunctions, like “but”, is taught to be avoided at the start of a sentence at school. However, a boat load of exemption exists in daily usage, but they won’t be taught. I’m not saying that school teaches a load of nonsense, your teachers in most cases are striving for the best within a limited time frame and competitive subjects, I certainly am. I’m in fact saying that using English informally, is not as easy, as freeing, as glorified, as it may sound. Schools can hardly teach “Ta and explain, “this is a positive general response in the north-eastern part of England, learn it, but remember using it elsewhere would be largely ineffective…

So next time, when you are asked to use formal English, don’t pull a face. Imagine instead, the comfort of having lots and lots of rules to guide you. If you needed to remember the trove of idioms that you were once taught, now that would warrant a decided show of reluctance.