Mini-Lesson Monday: Lesson #176 (Part 1): ‘All the Mole’s lively language …’: Distinguishing Between Formal and Informal Registers in English

Another childhood favourite (I seem to be sharing a lot of these lately!) is today’s classic, The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame, a Scottish writer at the turn of the twentieth century.

His children’s classic is a story about four animals with human characteristics and personalities (a kind of writing called anthropomorphism, when an animal or thing is portrayed as having human traits). These characters are Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Toad. Mole is a humble, down-to-earth kind of creature; Ratty (a European water vole) is a helpful and lively fellow; Badger is an elderly, retiring but kind-hearted creature; Toad (the only character of the four whom I didn’t like very much as a child) is a ridiculously vain and flamboyant (showy) figure, who can’t resist motor-cars (the old-fashioned word for a car) and gets himself into many scrapes (troublesome situations) because of it.

As I was thinking about this wonderful little book, I realised that it is the kind of story that incorporates many opposites: animals (as intelligent as humans) still living out in the wild; serious personalities, like that of the Badger, contrasted with the foolish personality of the Toad; and lastly, the different styles of writing and speaking that can be found in the book – some of it more formal and descriptive, and other parts more conversational and choppy.

Many students of English as a foreign language wonder about these latter kinds of differences – what makes formal English formal, and what makes it informal? – so in today’s two-part lesson we will look at some of the main differences in these two registers in the English language. This lesson will be helpful too if you would like to understand the differences between what is generally acceptable in written English and/or spoken English registers. 

In part 1 of this lesson, we will therefore look at the differences between registers, while in the second part of the lesson (next post) we will consider what makes for rich language in both registers.

✍️ I will begin by saying that these are not ‘hard and fast’ rules, but rather general principles that distinguish formal registers from informal ones. 


If you have been studying ‘standard English’ from a textbook or a teacher who likes grammar, the chances are that you are already familiar with the formal register in English. This is because formal-styled English is simply the kind of English that has been tried and tested over many years, can be understood by nearly every English speaker everywhere, and is used for writing all kinds of publications.

Every English student should learn about the formal register in English – even if informal, conversational English seems more ‘fun’ and engaging at first, it is not enough to just learn how to speak in English. If you do, you will be greatly limited in the kinds of jobs and study opportunities, not to mention human networks, that you can join in, because professional spheres always require you to be able to communicate in the formal register. Don’t let this worry you: your language does not need to be uncomfortably formal to be acceptable. Keep on reading here to see what I mean by this, and notice the simple yet effective ways you can formalise your language a bit more.



Nearly every sentence in formal English begins with a subject somewhere at its beginning. Consider these examples of formal register English from The Wind in the Willows:

📙 ‘The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

📙 ‘This explanation, of course, was thoroughly understood by every one present.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

📙 ‘It was a bright morning in the early part of summer; the river had resumed its wonted banks and its accustomed pace, and a hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Alternatively, they might start with an adverb or adverbial phrase like ‘therefore’, ‘on the other hand’, or (as in many stories) ‘once upon a time’.

📙 When Toad found himself immured in a dank and noisome dungeon, and knew that all the grim darkness of a medieval fortress lay between him and the outer world of sunshine and well-metalled high roads where he had lately been so happy, disporting himself as if he had bought up every road in England, he flung himself at full length on the floor, and shed bitter tears, and abandoned himself to dark despair.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

📙 Once beyond the village, where the cottages ceased abruptly, on either side of the road they could smell through the darkness the friendly fields again; and they braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows



When writing or speaking in a formal register, make sure that you write out words in full. For example, you should write ‘cannot’ (instead of ‘can’t’), ‘will not’ (instead of ‘won’t’), and ‘you have been’ (instead of ‘you’ve been’). 

Here are some examples from Grahame’s book where words that might be abbreviated (cut short) in spoken English are here spelled out in full:

📙 ‘The fact is, as already set forth, when you live a life of intense activity for six months in the year, and of comparative or actual somnolence for the other six, during the latter period you cannot be continually pleading sleepiness when there are people about or things to be done.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘He could not bear to disappoint his two friends, who were already deep in schemes and anticipations, planning out each day’s separate occupation for several weeks ahead.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)



This means that an idea that is begun in one paragraph is either resolved, continued, or shown in a different light in the next paragraph – but it isn’t dropped completely, as can happen in spoken English. 

To explain the point, let’s imagine that the letters below represent different thoughts:

Paragraph 1:

A, B, C, D,

Paragraph 2: 

D (resolved, changed, or continued), E, C, F, 

Paragraph 3:

F (resolved, changed, or continued), G, A, B, etc.

This is a general illustration, but it should help to show how good English writing (and speaking in a formal register) require a certain organisation and connectivity

Here is another example from The Wind in the Willows, which unfortunately I cannot quote in full here – but just only enough to make the point. I am inserting letters here to generally identify sentences that have a similarity across different paragraphs:

📙 (A) It all seemed too good to be true. (B) Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting— everything happy, and progressive, and occupied. (C) And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering “whitewash!” he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working. 

(B) He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. …

(A/C) As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice, snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. …

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphases mine)

The sentences I have marked (A) here are ones that speak of how good this day was. The sentences I have marked (B) describe the Mole’s walking through natural scenes. And the sentences marked (C) describe his interaction with other creatures around him (‘these busy citizens’; ‘for an animal with few wants …’)



This register is (as the title suggests) used primarily in spoken English; it can be used in writing however, especially when we want to write down the words of spoken conversations or else to write colloquially to a friend. 

One of the great things about the informal register is its flexibility. Phrases tend to flow or stop spontaneously, and punctuation rules reflect these changes. In turn, anything written in an informal register is on the whole easier to read. 

Here are some of the characteristics that distinguish the informal register in English:



📙 ‘O, I know, I know, so it is,’ replied the Rat evasively. ‘But I think we won’t go there just now. Not just yet. It’s a long way, and he wouldn’t be at home at this time of year anyhow, and he’ll be coming along some day, if you’ll wait quietly.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Certain characteristics of spoken language – repetition (‘I know, I know …’) , pauses or full-stops before a sentence is finished (e.g. ‘Not just yet.’), or longer, rather winding sentences can be found in the informal register. 



📙 ‘And instead of having an uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering “whitewash!” he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Still, Toad was not inclined to give in all at once. So he got out the boat, and set off rowing up the river to where the garden front of Toad Hall came down to the water-side.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphases mine)

Notice how, by beginning with a conjunction or a dependent kind of adverb, these sentences rely on and connected to something that was said beforehand. In formal registers of English, these would be part of the sentence they are joined to, separated only by a semicolon perhaps, as in my paraphrase here below:

Still, Toad was not inclined to give in all at onceso he got out the boat, and set off rowing up the river …



If you have been following my lessons, you may remember that in Lesson #139 we defined ‘run-on’ sentences as sentences that fuse together several independent sentences that should otherwise be divided by punctuation marks or even conjunctions. ‘Run-on’ sentences are not always the same as long sentences. In spoken English, it is fairly common to use long sentences with many conjunctions or limited punctuation, such as in the following one where Kenneth Grahame describes Mole’s work:

📙 So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. 

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphases mine)

However, it is important to distinguish between these kinds of sentences (full of conjunctions) and run-on sentences, which are never acceptable in formal or informal English registers at all. Notice the complete lack of punctuation in my example of a run-on sentence here:

Mole was digging so hard he hardly found time to think what it was he was doing until he began to see some light literally at the end of the tunnel realising it was the sunlight coming through and he was nearly outside.

⚠️ This is never acceptable, so take care to avoid writing like this, even if you think you are just being informal! Informal registers are always expected to be grammatically correct. ❗



You are almost certainly familiar with abbreviated constructions of verbs like these:

‘shouldn’t’ = ‘should not’

‘can’t’ = ‘cannot’

‘won’t’ = ‘will not’

‘shan’t’ = ‘shall not’

‘you’ve said …’ = ‘you have said’

✍️ As mentioned above, we never use abbreviated forms in the formal register. When it comes to the informal registers, however, this can change; in some cases it is acceptable to use these kinds of abbreviated forms.

Look at how Kenneth Grahame used them here to describe as faithfully as possible how his characters were speaking:

📙 ‘First, you are sorry for what you’ve done, and you see the folly of it all?’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Now then!’ he said to the Toad, when the four of them stood together in the Hall, ‘first of all, take those ridiculous things off!’

Shan’t!’ replied Toad, with great spirit.

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘ “Mayn’t I sing them just one little song?” he pleaded piteously.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (emphases in bold mine, but the italics are in Grahame’s original text)

This has been a long but comprehensive overview of the different characteristics that distinguish formal from informal registers. So join us in Part 2 of this Lesson, where we look at the similarities that formal and informal registers in English have in common. 

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)