Mini-Lesson Monday: Lesson #176 (Part 2): ‘All the Mole’s lively language …’: Distinguishing Between Formal and Informal Registers in English

In the last part of this lesson (see here), we covered the distinctive traits of the formal and informal registers in the English language. I recommend that you check this Part 1 first before reading this, since what we are going to addressed here builds on what was covered before!

Through the help of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, we will be looking here at 3 points that both formal and informal registers or ‘styles’ of English have in common. 

Both formal and informal English registers value:

  • alliteration and assonance
  • occasional use of richer words
  • punctuation that reflects natural breathing patterns



📙 ‘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!”…’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

If you ever tried to write an essay in English, chances are that you will be encouraged to use an alliterative phrase or two to enrich your writing. 

But the same can be said of good, memorable speeches. Consider this speech, with its alliteration and assonance, from the civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr:

📜 ‘I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’

~ From the “I have a dream”, 1963 speech(emphases mine)

✒️ I have wrote another Lesson (#160 here) where I explain this in more detail. 

I would encourage you to use alliterative phrases in your writing but also in your spoken communication whenever you are sharing something memorable. It will come more naturally with practice, and your ear will attune itself to noticing it in the speeches and writings of other English speakers (who appreciate it very much when tastefully done).



📙 ‘He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things or there would be simply no end to it.’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

In this quotation, Grahame might easily have written: ‘he [Mole] hurried along, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things …’ After all, its meaning would be the same as ‘he quickened his pace’. 

However, ‘he quickened his pace’ is a richer phrase, more descriptive and evocative than saying simply that he ‘hurried’. And it is the kind of richer descriptive that is appreciated in both formal and informal registers.

⚠️ A word of warning however: notice however how I mentioned their occasional use!

There is nothing worse than a person overusing rich, elaborate words to describe something quite simple. Mr Toad, in The Wind in the Willows, tends to use many overly elaborate words:

📙 ‘You’re so eloquent, dear Badger, and so moving, and so convincing, and put all your points so frightfully well …’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

📙 ‘It’s all up! It’s all over now! Chains and policemen again! Prison again! Dry bread and water again! O, what a fool I have been! What did I want to go strutting about the country for, singing conceited songs, and hailing people in broad day on the high road, instead of hiding till nightfall and slipping home quietly by back ways! O hapless Toad! O ill-fated animal!’

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

By contrast, the nice thing about the first quotation above (the one describing Mole walking in the woods) is this: ‘quickened his pace’ is the only phrase that might be described as ‘rich’, whereas the rest of the sentence is as straightforward and simple as can be

This allows us as readers (or listeners) to appreciate the rich phrase in the context of more down-to-earth descriptions. 

Keep your sentences simple and elegant whenever possible!



Whenever I am proofreading a written document for someone, I pay special attention to punctuation: it must reflect the natural pauses of thought and speech regardless of whether it is to be read aloud or read silently.

Punctuation marks like commas, semicolons, colons, full-stops / periods, even dashes – these are very valuable in both formal and informal writing and speaking styles. Try imagining what it would be like to listen to someone who is speaking without taking a breath, just on and on and on … how tiresome would that be? So don’t fall into the trap of excluding punctuation marks simply because they are smaller than words; they are absolutely essential to making yourself understood well in English, whether you are speaking or writing!

(You may be wondering: how can I demonstrate punctuation marks when I am speaking? I simply mean that you take full breaths or half breaths when you finish a thought phrase or idea, in the same way as you would be expected to if you were reading a well-written document aloud and had to pause fully at the full stops and pause only a little at the commas, for example. ✒️ If you’re interested in learning more about the value of punctuation in English, check out Lesson #121 and Lesson #143 here.)



As mentioned before, there are no fixed rules to absolutely positively identify informal and formal registers every time. Instead, they are identifiable by their general tendencies (such as to abbreviate some words, or not) and also by their context (who is the audience?).

As a teacher I have noticed in recent years that there is a worrisome trend of teaching ‘informal’, conversational English over and above formally-expressed English. While coversational English is of course invaluable, it is limited (unless you are learning English only for going on holidays). Formal English will continue to be required from anyone who wants to write, read, study or work in English.  

👉 Now one more quick word, this time on my own writing: can you guess which register I am using as I write these lessons for you? 

If you aren’t sure whether it is formal or informal, you are probably closest to the truth: I use a combination of the two registers for these lessons. Firstly, I use the formal register because of course these are written rather than spoken lessons; also, I want to offer you opportunities to get used to reading approachable, yet somewhat formal, English (be aware: there aren’t that many such resources out there for English language learners to read). 

On the other hand, I also use certain abbreviations or even begin some sentences with a conjunction because I want to sound like I would if actually speaking to you. I aim for you to feel that it is a real person who is teaching you, and not simply a textbook text you’re reading.

In fact, the way that I write is quite similar to how I speak, so that if you would ever have an one-on-one lesson with me, you would notice the same.

In closing, if there are any further points that I haven’t dealt with in either part of this Lesson, please feel free to contact me and we can arrange a lesson together. I know that this is a big topic and one that cannot be grasped in one single lesson, so I am happy to help you further if needed.

by J. E. Gibbons

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