Making the change from the formal to the informal.
When communicating through English, there will always be options presenting the speaker with a language choice.
In English, the choice will be either in a formal style or an informal style.
The formal style is often a direct translation from your language:
I told Peter everything he needed to know
The informal style will not be a direct translation but rather a PHRASAL VERB:
I filled Peter in.
I believe that learners today want to use the informal side of English because this is more like what the native speaker is likely to use. And that is what this blog is all about. As you can see from the above example, the informal side is often much shorter. English speakers love this! The journey from formal (translation) to the informal is called ‘switching’©
‘Switching’ is moving between the formal and informal. It is moving away from direct translation towards metaphor and image-based language.
Here are some examples:
Peter is talking about a corrupt director of a company who he suspects is destroying the environment illegally. In telling us about the director and his experiences he has used several phrasal verbs giving us information:
He has to answer to the shareholders
He tried to play down his role in the forest’s destruction
I tried to sound him out to see if he would reveal anything
He let it slip (it slipped out) that his company was responsible
He left out the fact that he had been in prison
I can’t wait to fill in my editor
Now lets understand!
- - To answer to someone – To whom do you answer to? Do you have anyone to answer to?
If you have a boss, then the answer is yes!
If you have parents, then the answer is yes!
You answer to the person who is responsible for you. The person to whom you answer to is the person to whom you have to justify your actions. People, who are self-employed have nobody to answer to (except perhaps themselves). Single people have nobody to answer to. Do politicians have anybody to answer to? Of course! The electorate. So who do you have to answer to?
- - To play an action/a fact down – This means that you try to make it seem less important than it really is. People often play things down because they are modest. For example, if I won a gold medal in the Olympics and I say ‘Oh it’s nothing’, then I am trying to play down the medal. In the case above however, the director is trying to play down something negative, saying it has no importance when actually, it does!
Politicians often try to play down their mistakes and play up their successes!
- - To sound someone out – This is where you get a ‘preview’ to see how someone feels about an issue. You may feel that is too early to ask them directly, so you ‘sound them out’ first to get an idea how the reaction might be. For example, if you want to ask your boss for a raise you don’t ask directly ‘can I have a raise?’ Instead, you sound them out by talking about money in general and getting a feel for what they might think. Then you may or may not ask for the raise.
Therefore the idea of ‘sounding someone out’ is the idea of talking loosely about something to gauge their reaction.
- - To let it slip - The phrasal verb is to slip out, but let it slip sounds better so we will use that form. This one is easy. It means that you told a secret accidentally. You opened your big mouth and said something to someone that you shouldn’t have! Perhaps you let it slip that he was hiding in the next room or that Mary’s surprise birthday is on Saturday. Basically, you let the cat out of the bag! Have you ever let something slip? Was it something important? What did you do?
- - To leave out (a fact) – If you leave out a fact, you don’t say it. It’s that simple. I told the police my name and address but I left out the fact that I’m not staying there. Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you leave out. Think about your CV. Did you write EVERYTHING or did you leave out a few things? Be honest!
- - To fill someone in on something – This means to give someone the necessary information about a situation. It basically means ‘tell them everything’. For example, if you go on holidays, when you arrive back in work/school, your colleague will fill you in on what has been happening and all the gossip. When Steven fills in his editor, he will tell her everything about the story he has. Look again at the original sentence at the top:
I told Peter about the project.
So with switching, we try to replace the formal with the idiomatic:
I filled Peter in about the project.
Now, let’s add some more verbs that you can ‘switch’:
When Peter Factotum fills his editor in about the story she will either think that it is a good story or a bad story. If she thinks it is bad, then Peter will have to persuade her that he should write it.
He will have to talk her into letting him write it.
When you were a teenager you had to talk your parents into letting you do things. Like what?
You can also talk someone out of doing something.
He wanted to sell the house but we talked him out of it. – We dissuaded him!
If there was a situation where several journalists wanted to write the story:
Peter would pitch for the story
The idea of ‘a pitch’ is important in English. People pitch ideas to others in order to sell a product or get support.
We pitched the idea of an environmentally-friendly car to the managers and they loved it!
When there is competition to ‘win’ an account, for example, you pitch for it.
Every advertising agency in the city pitched for the McDonalds account.
In this case however, it is unlikely that Peter would have to pitch for the story as:
He came up with it.
He thought of it. It is his story.
Formal ➙ Informal
Informal ➙ Formal
The context will decide which option you use.
It’s up to you – You choose!
Literal translation (formal) Native equivalent (usually much shorter!)
He is responsible to nobody
He answers to nobody
He made the situation seem less important
He played down the situation
I tried to get an idea of what she was thinking
I sounded her out
He accidentally said it
He let it slip
I omitted it
I left it out
He told me everything
He filled me in
I persuaded her to do it
I talked her into doing it
I dissuaded him from doing it
I talked him out of doing it
We gave a presentation to get the job
We pitched for the job
He thought of a great idea
He came up with a great idea
It’s up to you
Look at the following sentences. You will see the long formal version. Translate to the shorter informal version by switching:
Eg: He told me accidentally___________➙_________________ He let it slip.
1. I asked him questions to see what he was thinking_➙__________________.
2. He persuaded me to sell my car to him__➙___________________________.
3. We presented hoping to attract the new client__➙_____________________.
4. I told them that the situation was not as bad as they believed__➙________.
5. Her only boss is the owner, nobody else_➙__________________________.
Now try to do the opposite. Look at the informal and make it formal:
Eg: I left out the fact that I was unavailable___➙_____I failed to say that I was unavailable.
1. He came up with a brilliant plan__➙________________________________.
2. They played down the disaster in the interview_➙_____________________.
3. She talked me out of selling_➙____________________________________.
4. I let it slip that he wasn’t qualified_➙_______________________________.
5. They pitched for the Medford account_➙_____________________________.
●Start using switching in your everyday life. Every time you want to say something, try to think of two ways to say the same thing and make a language CHOICE.
●In your professional life, try to use all of the above verbs in the next week.
●In your personal life, try to use 5 of the above verbs in the next week.
●Write a list of ten situations you know you will be in, in the next 7 days. Identify if they are formal or informal situations. Which side of the English language would you prefer to be using in each? When going to each, make decisions about the language choices that you will make before the event and then follow them!
● Show your colleagues the two versions and ask them which they use. Try to talk about language to as many people as possible.
●Keep switching. Learn to manipulate language so that you sound like you WANT to sound!