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The difference between Conversational and Academic English

Two people having conversation over coffee
Are you more stressed about having a casual conversation in English than writing an essay?
Published by Julia Lane

This blog post was written by former employee and SLC Writing Services Coordinator Hermine Chan.

What if I told you English wasn’t just...English?

When you are fluent, switching gears between a casual conversation and a formal presentation may feel natural. The same goes for writing.  For some English Additional Language (EAL) learners, the differences between these "types" of English can cause a real headache.

And sometimes, it's not just a headache -- it can come as a shock.

All is fair in love and...English?

My new work colleague is a highly educated professional from a Middle Eastern country. They are fluent and confident in their formal presentations about regulatory frameworks and environmental audits. Their reports are well-written and highlight their expertise. A few weeks ago, I complimented their fluency and confidence despite being a very new Canadian immigrant.

Suddenly, they made the following admission:

"Writing essays and doing presentations is easy. But now I know… speaking to people, in conversations? It's so hard and I don't know how to do it."

My colleague explained they spent years learning English in school and decades completing academic work in English. However, they rarely had exposure to casual conversations, slang, or idioms. It made the everyday world and workplace unexpectedly daunting. Even texting seemed overwhelming and mind-boggling.

I was humbled by their honesty. It also piqued my curiosity and inspired this question: What are the differences between so-called "conversational" and "academic" English?

A quick rundown

Here are a few differences:

 Conversational EnglishAcademic English
DescriptionSocial use of English in casual conversation, social media, virtual messages. This is our "everyday" language.Formal use of English in professional or academic settings, for a variety of purposes. These may include presentations, essays, or reports.
Examples of settingsFace-to-face conversations, texting, social gatherings.School, professional or corporate workplace, interviews.
GrammarProper grammar is not mandatory. It is often short-hand in written form. It may contain "slang".Proper grammar is required and expected. It is formal and structured.

Adapted from Conversation vs. Academic English: What Are the Differences?, by Thienan Nguyen, 2017. In the public domain.

Can this be any more complicated?

It is important to recognize that Conversational and Academic English are not necessarily two distinct languages. In addition, the differences between Conversational and Academic English exist on a scale rather than distinct categories. Thus, there are subjective perspectives as to how casual or formal one's English should be in a particular setting. And of course, context is everything. For example, one's use of vocabulary may depend on the social setting or academic discipline.

Okay, so how do I decide which word is best?

Sometimes you may find yourself hesitating or struggling to find the right words (and we all do, trust me!). It is important to remember that this is a normal and very common feeling. Here are some examples of what to do when trying to decide what word(s) to use in a situation:

  • Keep it simple. It is better to err on the side of caution. In this case, this means keeping it simple. In academia, we often get lost in complex terminology and feel pressured to imitate the writing we see in research papers we don't fully understand. If you don’t know what word to use, remember that there is no point in using "fancy", complicated, or big words if you’re uncertain about their true meaning and context.
  • Ask the listener. If you are talking to someone in real-time, there is no harm in asking them if the word you used was an appropriate choice. This may be daunting for some (including myself) and it depends if you are comfortable with the other person. However, it is effective for getting immediate feedback and sparking further conversation. This approach also makes it easier to understand which words to use in the future because you are still in the context.
  • Read aloud to yourself. This technique is gold for many situations--drafting a text message, email, resume, or essay. Read your writing out loud and think about the situation. Is it casual or formal? Is shorthand or slang acceptable? If someone sent, handed in, or mentioned this word to you in this context, would you be caught off-guard or confused? If it doesn’t sound like it "fits", try replacing it with another word. 

All of this might feel intimidating -- one's ability to blend in fluently will certainly come with time and a lot of practice. Do not hesitate to reach out for support from your peers, professors, mentors, or community members (while observing safe social distancing). As always, the Student Learning Commons is here to support your success.

The cline between spoken and written discourse.

Source: McCarthy, M., Matthiessen, C., & Slade, D. (2010). Discourse Analysis. In N. Schmitt (Ed)., An introduction to applied linguistics (2nd ed., pp. 53-69). Hodder Education.  

The cline (continuum) between spoken and written discourse (text version)

Informal spoken English to formal written English:

  • Casual conversation: cosy chat with a close friend
  • E-mail to a friend
  • Letter to an acquaintance
  • Conversation with a manager at work
  • Job interview
  • Public speech
  • Written academic article

~Angelica Y.

Additional resources for EAL learners and mentors

SFU Library. English as an Additional Language (EAL) Support Services.


Colorín Colorado. (n.d.). What Is the Difference Between Social and Academic English?  
Nguyen, Thienan. (2017, October 27). Conversational vs. Academic English: What Are the Differences? Everest Education.

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