How to avoid using overly formal language
One giveaway that a writer has English as a second language is the register (formality) of the vocabulary they use.
Of course, it’s no bad thing to be multilingual, and writing in English brings greater opportunities. But unless you are able to write effective text which reads with a natural flow, you’ll find those better writing gigs harder to come by.
Readers nowadays are used to the conversational style of articles and blogs they search and skim online. Content that instructs the reader to follow the text in the style of a 19th-century aristocrat will seem less trustworthy. Editors are looking for writers who can use the right register to guide readers, not just hook them in with numbers and false promises.
This article offers a few tips to help your writing sound less old-fashioned, less formal, and less ‘professorial.’
‘Red Flag’ Words to Avoid
One set of words I suggest focusing on is linking terms (cohesive devices). I categorize ‘academic sounding’ linking terms as follows:
- (addition) furthermore, moreover, correspondingly
- (consequence) hence, therefore, thus, as such
- (contrast) nevertheless, albeit, nonetheless, notwithstanding.
- (sequence) henceforth, consequently, forthwith, thereupon
We can identify these words in two ways.
- They are composites (nevertheless= never the less),
- They have shorter, simpler synonyms we can use instead (still, yet).
These are examples of words which language learners are often told to use. Examiners want to check that candidates have the ability to link their sentences with technical terms, showing a better understanding of the language. But in the real world, readers don’t demand anything from writers. Content should be written for them, phrased in the simplest and most impactful way.
Of course, it’s important to note that these words exist for a reason. In high-register academic papers and even in some journalistic writing, authors want to add gravitas and authority to their work. The more technical and precise the term used, the more ‘high register’ it sounds. So, in some cases, these words are appropriate.
Hemmingway Editor is a useful way to quickly identify academic-sounding linking words. It will tell you there is a simpler alternative. It’s up to you to build a personal dictionary, so you can replace these ‘posh’ words with everyday ones. I use CTRL + F to search for and replace any overused or overly formal terms.
The other ‘red flag’ words to look out for are the more precise, technical verbs and longer, more elaborate adjectives. The next section will show you how to identify these and make better choices.
How to select the most appropriate vocab
English derives from several languages.
The majority of words come from two roots: Germanic languages and Latin.
Germanic words are simpler. They are generally shorter and more commonly used in speaking. These are best for internal messages, blogging, and more informal texts.
Latinate words are considered formal. These are the fancy, more technical-sounding words we use in academia and formal situations.
Examples to compare:
give up, ask, build, pick, put down
relinquish, inquire, construct, select, humiliate
Germanic words often have fewer syllables.
Latinate words have cognates in other Latin-based European languages.
If you are looking to simplify your text, do some detective work in a respected online dictionary (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge). These sites will attach labels such as ‘obsolete’, ‘archaic’, or ‘non-standard’. If it’s not marked at all, then consider it to be Standard English.
You’ll also see the etymology (root) of the word. Remember, if it comes from Latin, it’s probably more formal sounding.
Now check the thesaurus for synonyms you recognize. They’re probably Germanic words.
I have found Grammarly and other AI correctors to offer poor style suggestions, as the tech has no understanding of the context and audience of the piece. Essentially, it cannot process the writer’s intention, so it gives oversimplified and concrete style suggestions.
A better tool to employ is COCA — Corpus of Contemporary American English. This site requires registration but is free to use. If you search for a particular word or phrase, it trawls the internet to find the number of uses (higher frequency = more likely to be informal) and shows you in which contexts the word is used (academia, blog, book, etc.).
My message to multilingual writers is to dedicate time to building your vocabulary so you can avoid these ‘red flag’ academic words. That way, you’ll build your writing authority and gain the opportunities you deserve. What matters is the quality of your writing, not your mother tongue.
Have you noticed any other words or phrases you think are too formal and archaic? Let me know in the comments.
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