3.3 Types of Language

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between informal and formal language.
  • Describe the different types of informal language.
  • Describe the types of improper language.

Suppose you read or watch different types of programming. You probably notice a difference in language use based on the environment, who is being spoken to, and the reason for communicating. This section will discuss different types of language, as this impacts how others view you and whether they will view you positively or negatively.

Formal versus Informal Language

You probably know that how we communicate in different contexts can vary greatly. For example, when you compose a text to your best friend you will use different grammatical structures and words than when you compose an email to your professor. One of the main reasons for this difference is because of formal (professional) and informal language.  Below is a general overview of the major differences between formal and informal language.

Formal Language (Professional)

  • Used in carefully edited communication.
  • Used in academic or official content.
  • Sentence structure is long and complicated.
  • Emphasis is on grammatical correctness.
  • Uses the passive voice.
  • Speakers or writers avoid the use of contractions.
  • Avoids the inclusion of emotionally laden ideas and words.
  • Language should be objective.
  • Language should avoid the use of colloquialisms.
  • Language is gender-neutral.

Informal Language (Nonprofessional)

  • Used in impromptu, conversational communication.
  • Used in everyday communication.
  • Sentence structure is short, choppy, and improvised.
  • Emphasis is on easily understood messages using everyday phrases.
  • Uses the active voice.
  • Contractions are often used.
  • Allows for the inclusion of emotions
  • Language can be subjective.
  • It is perfectly appropriate to use colloquialisms.
  • Language includes gender references.

Formal Language — Professional

When applying for a job, you will most likely use formal language in your cover letter and resume. Formal language is an official, academic, and professional language. You want to appear intelligent and competent, so formal language helps you accomplish those goals. Formal language often occurs when we write using full sentences, and is grammatically correct. Formal language is objective and complex. Formal language is expected when communicating in health care environments.

Informal Language

Informal or nonprofessional language is common, everyday language, which might include slang words. It is continuous and casual. We use informal language when we talk to other people. It is more simple. Informal language tends to use more contractions and abbreviations. If you look at your text messages, you will probably see several examples of informal language.


Jargon is the specialized or technical language of a specific group or profession that outsiders may not understand (Murray, 2012, p. 147). If you are really into cars or computers, you probably know a lot about their different parts and functions and might use words specifically related to those. Jargon is normally used in a specific context and may or may not be understood outside that context. Jargon consists of a specific vocabulary that uses words or acronyms that only certain people understand. Health care is full of jargon such as the examples below.

  • sundowner
  • abrasion
  • abscess
  • acute
  • benign
  • ADHD

Chances are you have heard a few jargon phrases in your workplace or even found yourself using a few of them. Your workplace may even have some specific jargon only used in your organization. Take a minute and think about all the jargon you hear on average.


Colloquialism uses informal words in communication (Trudgill, 2000, p. 17). Colloquialism varies from region to region. Examples might be “wanna” instead of “want to” or “gonna” instead of “going to.” It shows us how society uses language in everyday life. Here’s a short list of some common colloquialisms you may have used yourself:

  • bamboozle — to deceive
  • be blue — to be sad
  • beat around the bush — to avoid a specific topic
  • buzz off — go away
  • fell through the cracks — to be neglected
  • go bananas, or go nuts — be very angry
  • gobsmacked — shocked
  • gonna — going to
  • hit a writer’s block — unable to write
  • hit the hay — to go to sleep

Slang refers to words employed by certain groups, such as young adults and teens (Mattiello, 2008). Slang is more commonly used when speaking rather than writing. Slang is often used between people who are similar and have experience with each other. Here is a list of some common slang terms you might use in your day-to-day life:

  • BAE (baby / before all else)
  • on fleek (looking perfect)
  • bye Felica (saying goodbye to someone you do not like)
  • the tea (gossip)
  • cash (money)
  • cheesy (cheap or tacky)
  • frenemy (someone who is both a friend and an enemy)
  • thirsty (being overly eager or desperate)
  • woke (being acutely aware of social injustice within society)
  • all Gucci (everything is fine)

How many of these slang words do you use? What other slang words do you find yourself using? When it comes to slang, it is important to understand that it is constantly evolving. What is common slang today could be completely passé tomorrow. What is common slang in Canada is not universal in English-speaking countries. Also, consider if any of the above has a place in professional communication.


Idioms are expressions or figures of speech whose meaning cannot be understood by looking at the individual words and interpreting them literally (Nunberg et al., 1994). Idioms can help amplify messages, and can be used to provide artistic expression. For instance, “knowledge is power!”

Idioms can be hard to grasp for speakers and contribute to misunderstandings or miscommunication. Consider whether any idioms have a place in professional communication.


  • a breath of fresh air (Refreshing or fun. She is a breath of fresh air)
  • a gut feeling (Feeling in the stomach. I have a gut feeling that everything will turn out all right).
  • a change of heart (Change my mind. I’ve had a change of heart. I am not going to the party).
  • get out of the wrong side of the bed (In a bad mood. He must have gotten up out of the wrong side of the bed today).
  • see eye to eye (Agree. He does not see eye to eye with his parents at all).

Clichés are ideas or expressions that have been so overused they have lost their original meaning (Blake & Bly, 1993, p. 85). Clichés are common and are often heard. For instance, “light as a feather” or “happily ever after” are common clichés. They are important because they express ideas and thoughts that are popular in everyday use. They are prevalent in advertisements, television, and literature.

Improper Language

Improper language is not proper, correct, or applicable in certain situations. Two such types of improper language are vulgarity and cursing. Vulgarity includes language that is offensive or lacking in good taste. Often, vulgar language is lewd or obscene. Cursing includes wishing evil, doom, or misfortune on a person or group. It can also include curses or profane words. People might differ in their perceptions about what constitutes improper language, but there is no place for it in professional communication.

Ambiguous Language

Ambiguous language can have various meanings. Sometimes this includes very abstract advertisements. For instance, a restaurant ad reads, “People are our best ingredient!” What comes to mind when you hear that? Are they using people in their food? Or do they mean their customer service is what makes their restaurant notable? When communicating with others, we must be clear in our language. We need others to know exactly what we mean and not imply meaning. That is why you need to ensure you do not use ambiguous language.


Euphemisms also make language unclear. People use euphemisms to say something more politely or less bluntly. For instance, instead of telling your parent or guardian that you failed a test, you might say you did suboptimally. People use euphemisms because they sound better and seem a better way to express their feelings. People use euphemisms all the time. For instance, instead of saying a person died, they might say the person passed away. Instead of saying that someone farted, you might say someone passed gas. How prevalent are euphemisms in health care environments? Do euphemisms have a place in professional communication?

Relative Language

Relative language depends on the person communicating. People’s backgrounds vary; hence, their perspectives will vary. A professor at one college might complain about her salary while those at another would love to have a salary like hers. In other words, our language is based on our perception of our experiences. For instance, if someone asked you what your ideal salary would be, would it be based on your previous salary? Or that of our parents? Your friends? Language is relative for that reason. Would you consider a meal at a restaurant to be expensive if the meal cost $200 for two people? How about $100? How about $50?

Static Evaluation

Often, we think that people and things do not change, but they do. You might see people who go through amazing transformations through social media sites such as Instagram, perhaps through weight loss, a makeover, or surgery. These people changed.

Static evaluation states that things are not constant. Things vary over time, and our language should represent that change. An example is making a statement such as “Max is bad.” It is important to note that Max might be bad at this point or may have displayed bad behaviour previously, but it may not represent how Max will be in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • Formal language is expected when communicating professionally, whereas informal language is appropriate in casual conversation.
  • Informal language includes jargon, or technical language; colloquialism, or informal expressions; slang, or nonstandard language; idioms, or expressions or figures of speech; clichés; ambiguous language; and static evaluation.


  1. Create a list of jargon or slang words that apply to your area of study and define what they mean.
  2. Create a list of colloquialisms or idioms that apply to your area of study. Ask someone outside of your area of study if these words make sense.
  3. Find clichés that are used in other cultures. See if you can find a North American equivalent of each cliché.
  4. For the entire day, take a minute to pause before you text or email someone. When we text or email someone, we typically just put our thoughts together in a quick fashion. Take a second to decide how you plan to use your words. Think about which words would be best to get your message across effectively. After you have typed the message, take another few minutes to reread the message. Be mindful of how others might interpret the message. Would they read it at face value, or would they misinterpret the message?


Blake, G., & Bly, R. W. (1993). The elements of technical writing. Macmillan.

Mattiello, E. (2008). An introduction to English slang: A description of its morphology, semantics and sociology. Polimetrica.

Murray, N. (2012). Writing essays in English language and linguistics: Principles, tips and strategies for undergraduates. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139035347

Nunberg, G., Sag, I. A., & Wasow, T. (1994). Idioms. Language, 70(3), 491–538. http://doi.org/10.1353/lan.1994.0007

Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. Penguin.

Westlund Stewart, N., Wilson, A. W., & Drewery, D. W. (2020). Mindfulness exercises for written communication: Key issues in large classrooms. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57(1), 109–118. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2019.1567369

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

Gerber, P. J., & Murphy, H. (n.d.). I.C.A.T. Interpersonal communication abridged textbook. Libre Texts. [Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0].

Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., & Thweatt, K. S. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Milne Library Publishing.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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