Writing style comprises four characteristics:
- Language complexity
- Objectivity, and
- Information depth.
The purpose you are trying to accomplish, the readers’ needs, your relationship with the reader, and the type of document affect the style in which you write. Style is a strategy for effective writing, not a goal.
In this article, we will address Formality.
Formality means (1) the degree to which you attend to standard English conventions, real and assumed, (2) the degree to which you use common words as opposed to colloquial, idiomatic words, (3) the level of objectivity, and (4) the level of intimacy you assume with the reader. Writing in a formal manner does not mean using “fancy” language and big words.
Levels of formality, sometimes called language registers, can be construed as follows.
Intimate (least formal): This is how you speak with or write to your best friends or significant other. Intimate language is highly dependent on shared experiences, assumes understanding of common topics, and does not reflect standard English conventions of grammar or sentence structure. It also relies on shared definitions of what words and expressions mean, and those meanings may be different or more specific meanings used by the general public. Because intimate language is so dependent on the relationship with the other person, and because intimate language implies social and emotional closeness, avoid intimate language except when speaking or writing to people in your closest relationships.
Casual: This is how you speak or write to people with whom you associate casually. Friends and family members may fall in this category, as do many acquaintances. Although this language register has been described as “friendly” language, we may also use casual language in unfriendly circumstances. Casual language depends somewhat on shared experiences, common interests, and similar personalities with the other person. Word use is often idiosyncratic (i.e., slang) and dependent on shared experiences.
Social: This is how you speak or write to people you meet in social situations, such as when speaking to a shop clerk or when introduced to a friend of a friend. It relies on broadly accepted word definitions, common yet respectful ways of addressing the other person, and standard English conventions, though not as rigorously as more formal registers. It does not depend on shared experiences but may employ idioms common to a particular community or culture. Social language is appropriate for most social encounters. Indeed, social language implies membership within a particular community or general culture and is appropriate if you are trying to establish yourself as a member of a particular social community.
Formal: Formal language rigorously follows standard English conventions and relies on broadly accepted word definitions. It tends to avoid personal opinions, feelings, and experiences from private life. It also avoids idiomatic language. Unlike less formal language styles, formal language doesn’t assume the reader has shared experiences, understands the topics and issues, or has any social connection to the writer or speaker. Generally, this is the level of formality for public, published writing or writing to people with whom you don’t have any social relationship. This is the most acceptable level for most published or broadly disseminated documents, business documents, and academic documents.
Professional: Here, the word professional does not mean formal and business-like. It means writing specific to a particular profession. Professional documents are, for all practical purposes, social documents. However, the social group is a specific, targeted group of readers in a professional field. The members of this group share a common professional language with specific words and expressions, often referred to as jargon, and specific expertise in a field of study. Unlike social language, understanding is not dependent upon shared experiences in a community or social group. Rather, understanding is dependent of shared expertise and experience within a particular professional field. Like formal language, professional language pays rigorous attention to language conventions.
This examination of formality levels is useful for two reasons. (1) It may help you select and use the appropriate level. Using the wrong level will create conflict with your reader. If you use a level that is too intimate, you presume a level of intimacy that the reader does not share. If you use a level that is too formal, you may be perceived as an arrogant, condescending outsider. In either case, you damage the relationship with the reader that you need to accomplish your purposes. (2) Understanding various levels of formality will help you gauge the effectiveness of your communications, make adjustments, and become flexible in your communication style.
Although the formality levels address word usage, nothing about the formal or professional writing indicates that using longer, more esoteric words is better. In fact, if certain words are not common to the audience you are addressing, or if you are unsure about how they are used, you risk damaging your communication and credibility.
In business, school, and most professional environments, effective writing stays firmly within the formal level unless you have a very specific, considered reason to use a different level.