Formal English Grammar

Whether you are preparing a speech, writing as essay, or just trying to improve your grammar, read this post to understand which English grammar constructions are considered formal. This understanding will help you become a better speaker, writer and just a more confident language user. The source used for writing this post is MyGrammarLab Advanced by Mark Foley and Diane Hall.

1. After it is we use the subject pronoun in formal language, and the object pronoun in informal language and short responses:

It is she who conspires against the King. (formal)

It is her who conspires against the king. (informal)

It is I who will rescue you. (formal)

It is me who will rescue you. (informal)

2. In formal contexts we use the with a singular noun to generalize about a whole group of species (read more about articles on our website: Articles: Basic Rules and Articles: Intermediate – Advanced):

The African elephant has larger ears than the Indian elephant.

The tiger is the largest species among the Felidae /filidi/.

The kangaroo is a marsupial from the family Macropodidae /mekropodidi/.

3. A stranded preposition comes on its own at the end of a clause or sentence; its object comes earlier in the sentence. But we sometimes keep the preposition and object together in more formal language:

We are unable to offer you the position for which you applied. (more formal)

We are unable to offer you the position you applied for. (less formal)

We must remember for whom we are catering. (more formal)

We must remember who we are catering for. (less formal)

4. In formal written English have is more usual than have got:

Our teachers have the highest qualifications. (more formal)

Our teachers have got the highest qualifications. (less formal)

5. We use the present simple in formal speech and writing for certain actions (which are usually expressed by reporting verbs):

I note that not all countries are able to do so.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Whoever you are, I suggest you surrender.

I argue that openness and non-discrimination should remain our watchwords.

6. It is possible to use will + infinitive for very formal arrangements:

Cabinet will meet tomorrow to discuss the issue.

We can also use shall / shall not with I and we to express determination, especially in a formal context:

In this war of liberation we shall not be alone.

I shall leave the record to speak for itself.

7. In formal English the present continuous is used for impersonal plans more often than be going to:

The companies are merging at the end of the month.

Sheets N’ Things is opening a new branch down there.

8. We can use be (not) + infinitive for formal commands and instructions:

Please sir, you are to arrest me.

You are not to worry about making a living.

9. Putting not after the adjectives adds to formality:

We’re quite certain not to be disturbed here.

He’s sure not to find out about it. (formal) I’m sure he won’t find out. (casual)

10. In academic and scientific English we commonly use may (not can) to talk about things which are generally possible:

Incorrect pages compression may lead to indexing failure.

The more ambitious objective of reaching full unification may cause further delays in the peace process.

Could is used to talk about general possibility in the past, but in academic and scientific English might is more common:

The King might execute suspects.

Wealthy Victorian families might employ as many as a dozen indoor servants.

11. Questions with ought to are formal (and rare) (usually we use should instead of ought to):

Ought we to invite her to the dinner?

Ought we to be drunk every night?

12. To make the first conditional more formal and the condition a little less likely, we can use happen to, or we can omit if and use should before the subject (read more about conditionals here):

If you happen to know the answer, please let me know it.

Should you happen to be in the city, please give us a call.

Should you be dissatisfied with the quality, let us know.

By placing were (to) and had before the subject we can make a condition more formal:

Were he a physician or a warrior, his skills would be revered. (more formal)

If he were a physician or a warrior, his skills would be revered. (less formal)

Had I been older, I would have seen more. (more formal)

If I had been older, I would have seen more. (less formal)

13. In formal English verbs with future meaning (e.g. expect or anticipate) can be followed by there + to be/being:

People won’t expect there to be a frog in here.

We don’t anticipate there being any resistance.

14. We can use there + a passive reporting verb + an infinitive noun phrase to describe a general feeling or belief:

There are thought to be more than 6,000 such institutions.

There are expected to be some 190 countries present at the Summer Olympics.

15. In formal English we prefer to use possessive adjectives rather than object pronouns before -ing forms:

Exorbitant tax rates led to his leaving the country.

Do you have any objection to my watching you while you paint?

16. To be more formal, we can use not after the subject in negative questions:

Why has he not called yet? (more formal)

What hasn’t he called yet? (less formal)

17. We usually put the preposition at the end of a wh– question. But in more formal speech and writing, we put the preposition before the question word, and change who to whom:

From whom is this letter?

To which letter are you referring?

18. In formal and academic English we use which rather than that in defining relative clauses (read more about relative clauses here):

This is the church which was built in 1888. (more formal)

This is the church that was built in 1888. (less formal)

19. The construction so + adjective + as + infinitive clause is quite formal:

It was so dark as to make it impossible to see her face. (more formal)

It was so dark that it was impossible to see her face. (less formal)

20. In formal writing and speeches rhetorical questions are often used to draw the audience’s attention to something, and the writer/speaker usually answers the question:

What do we want? We want justice and equality.

Who is to blame? We all are.

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