How To Master Formal Spoken English

How To Master Formal Spoken English cover

It’s important to differentiate from informal and formal spoken English. Read more on particular word choices while speaking in the two forms of English as well as potential pitfalls when speaking formal English.

English is a very fluid language. Slang, abbreviations and newly-concocted words form an important part of communicating with friends and family members.

However, sometimes the situation requires something a little more formal.

This could be for a job interview or meeting a partner’s parents for the first time. It could be the language we’d use with a respected member of the community or when attending an important social event.

In these settings and more, we need to use specific forms. But why is it important at all?

Formal language tells the recipient that we respect them enough to change the way we speak. It shows that we are aware of the unspoken conventions that govern some interactions. It demonstrates that that we are able to adopt a more sophisticated register when the need arises.

This article is going to focus on the specific structures we can use to elevate our spoken language to a more formal level. We’ll look at questions, offers and requests which make us sound polite, respectful and aware of the unspoken rules which govern more formal conversations.

So, let’s get started.

Do you want vs. Would you like?

Offering something to someone is an example of where we can use much more appropriate forms in a formal/semi-formal setting.

Watch this short exchange between celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay and a waitress.

And here’s a transcription of the crucial moment at the start of the video:

  • Waitress: Anyway, what do you want?
  • Ramsay: I would like, not ‘What do you want…’, ‘What would you like…

The famously perfectionist chef is immediately irritated by the waitress’ use of an informal question instead of the more polite version.

Let’s take a look at some other questions using the same formal and informal structures:

  • Informal: Do you want to come with us?
    • Formal: Would you like to come with us?
  • Informal: What do you want to do tomorrow?
    • Formal: What would you like to do tomorrow?

Can vs. Could

In informal situations or amongst friends, using Can… is sufficient when asking somebody to do something or asking permission to do something ourselves. For example:

  • Can you pass me that bottle of water?
  • Can I open that window?

In slightly more formal situations, perhaps in a social situation with people we want to show respect to, we may change Can… to Could

For example:

  • Could you pass me that bottle of water?
  • Could I open that window?

However, in a situation where we really want to sound polite we can use:

Would you mind + gerund/if + subject.

Would you mind + gerund/if + subject

Let’s take a look at how this form works in practice:

  • Would you mind passing me that bottle of water?
    • (Would you mind) + (gerund)
  • Would you mind if I opened that window?
    • (Would you mind) + (if) + (subject) + (verb)

*Note: The verb form in this second question takes the past simple form (opened) as opposed to the base form (open).

The types of question we are using here are called indirect questions. It means that we ‘frame’ a question with an additional form. These are very useful when adopting a more formal level of speech.

Let’s take a look at indirect questions in a little more detail.

Other indirect forms

We form indirect questions a little differently than direct questions. For example, we do not ‘invert’ the subject and verb, meaning they are similar to the structure of a positive statement.

Let’s look at three direct questions first:

  • What’s the time?
    • (Question word) + (verb) + (subject)
  • Where’s the station?
    • (Question word) + (verb) + (subject)
  • Who’s that?
    • (Question word) + (verb) + (subject)

All three of these direct questions have exactly the same structure and all include an inversion of the verb and subject (e.g. …is the time as opposed to the time is…).

With indirect questions, we use an indirect phrase at the start and then do not invert the verb and subject. Let’s take a look:

  • Could you tell me what the time is?
    • (Indirect phrase) + (question word) + (subject) + (verb)
  • Do you know where the station is?
    • (Indirect phrase) + (question word) + (subject) + (verb)
  • Have you any idea who that is?
    • (Indirect phrase) + (question word) + (subject) + (verb)

*Note: Because we are not inverting the subject and verb, we cannot contract the two forms i.e. …who that is not …who that’s.

Second person vs. Third person forms

In Spanish, and many other languages, it is common to change from the second person singular to the third person singular when speaking to someone we respect.

For example, using De donde es? (Where is he/she from?) instead of De donde eres? (Where are you from?) to display respect to the person we are asking.

And this also exists in English - it’s just much rarer.

For example, you may have seen a movie where the characters are dining in an expensive restaurant. The waiter, decked out in formal attire, enquires: Is sir enjoying his wine? as opposed to Are you enjoying your wine?

However, unless you work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, you’re probably never going to need this form. It’s just useful to be aware of it.

The dangers of overusing formal English

You may be tempted to resolve to always use formal English. It’s certainly easier than learning both the informal and formal phrases. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with sounding too polite, is there?

Well, unfortunately there sometimes is something wrong with sounding too polite.

Take a look at this exchange between a server in a fast food restaurant and a customer hoping to buy a meal.

  • Server: Hello sir, what can I get for you?
    • Customer: Yes, would you be so kind as to give me a small cheese burger meal with fries and a lemonade?
  • Server: Well, yes… but erm, you’ll have to pay for it.
    • Customer: Yes, of course.
  • Server: OK… would you like large fries and a large drink for just 50p extra?
    • Customer: I’m ever so sorry, but I believe I previously requested a small meal not a large one.
  • Server: (getting annoyed) Right!

In this exchange there are two distinct problems which arise out of using very formal language in an informal setting.

When the customer asks Would you be so kind as to give me…, the server presumes that the customer is asking for a free meal because of the level of formality they are using.

This is, of course, not the case.

Later in the exchange, the customer clarifies that they wanted a small meal, not a large one, by using the phrase I’m ever so sorry but I believe I previously requested…

What’s the problem here? Well, it sounds incredibly sarcastic.

By using excessively formal language in an inappropriate setting, the server believes the customer is being snide or insincere - essentially displaying passive aggression to express their irritation.


Hassan is a historian and today he’s interviewing a former British soldier for a book on National Service during World War Two.

Because of the age of the interviewee, he wants to show his respect by using formal language. Read through the exchange and then write out formal alternatives for the questions in bold text.

  • Hassan: Hi, pleased to meet you. Do you want a glass of water before we begin?
    • Former soldier: Yes, please.
  • Hassan: Here you go. So, to start off, can you tell me when you enlisted into the army?
    • Former soldier: Yes, it was in 1941. I was only 16 at the time.
  • Hassan: Where were you sent?
    • Former soldier: Well, first it was to basic training for six months in Yorkshire. After that we were sent to France.
  • Hassan: Actually, can I record this on my phone? I want to make sure I get everything correct.
    • Former soldier: Of course!

Kindly leave your answers in a comment below. Discuss and share your thoughts with each other.

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