I would like to use the word "know-how" in my letter of application. (I don't want to use "experience" as a replacement because I have used it before, therefore it wouldn't sound nice.)

Can I use it in this case or is it informal?

  • I won't object if others decide to close this question for lack of prior research. It was pretty easy to look the term up in Collins dictionary (where it's explicitly identified as "informal"), and they give a raft of synonyms. Jan 26, 2016 at 16:41
  • @Fumble - Finding a dictionary that labels the term as informal could be classified as "general reference", but I still think it's a fair question. I'll bet we could find a handful of words with the informal label in the dictionary that might seem formal enough to use in an application of some kind. In other words, "Is it informal?" is pretty straightforward and perhaps off-topic, but "Is it so informal enough that I should shy away from using it?" is a fair question that a learner should be able to inquire about here. As we both know, those labels don't always tell the full story.
    – J.R.
    Jan 26, 2016 at 22:30
  • @J.R.♦: Well, I did answer, rather than closevoting! But I can't really agree that your rephrased version of the question would be more On Topic. The version as asked seems to me "just about" valid, given that Merriam-Webster, for example, doesn't explicitly say it's "informal". But surely your version is far more Off Topic, since it would imply the OP knows it's informal (arguably an "objective" assessment), and is simply asking for subjective answers saying how informal people think the usage is. Jan 26, 2016 at 22:44
  • ...I'd rather see a single more "generic" question covering multiple slang usages that seem essentially "childish" (because they just throw together words in the general semantic area, without regard to standard grammar/syntax). In which context, know-how seems similar to, say, He's our go to man. Jan 26, 2016 at 22:53
  • @Fumble - I was only addressing the "general reference" part of your initial comment, and was hoping to stay away from the "subjective" part. Still, though, I can't see anything wrong with a non-native speaker asking for clarification on how "informal" a word or phrase might be. After all, your answer talks about "somewhat childish" connotations – one might call that "subjective," but I think those kinds of "subjective" observations are invaluable to the learner. (So, yes, I was praising you for your decision to answer rather than closevote.)
    – J.R.
    Jan 26, 2016 at 23:06

1 Answer 1


Use expertise, ability, skill, knowledge, facility, talent, command... if you don't want the (definitely) informal connotations of the somewhat childish...

know-how noun (informal)
1: ingenuity, aptitude, or skill; knack
2: commercial and saleable knowledge of how to do a particular thing; experience

  • Good suggestions. But it's better to be consistent in formal writing. isn't it? Jan 26, 2016 at 17:34
  • @onlyforthis: Sure - unless you're deliberately/facetiously mixing registers, it's always better to be "consistent". But I don't really see what you're getting at. Are you suggesting that if OP has already used experience, he should stick to that same word every time he wants to refer to (approximately) the same thing? Jan 26, 2016 at 17:44
  • Yes. That is exactly what I meant. Jan 26, 2016 at 18:17
  • @onlyforthis: In my answer text I could have used, for example, colloquial instead of informal, notwithstanding that the dictionary definition I cited happened to use the latter. And I certainly don't think the "better to be consistent" principle could be invoked to take issue with my choice of phrasing. Arguably, in such trivial contexts it would be a good idea for me to use different (but hopefully well-known) terms where a significant number of future readers are likely to be nns. Jan 26, 2016 at 19:19

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