Discover how to use all 4 levels of formality in your content
When it comes to how to ‘dress’ your ideas, you have a wealth of linguistic options to choose from.
With so many choices to make on how to pitch your message, it’s not surprising that most writers fall back on their trusty ‘go to’ phrases. We all have smart shoes and wedding attire in the closet, but most of the time it’s jeans and a t-shirt. Am I right?
Formality differs greatly between languages, so understanding how to hit the right register is imperative if you want to build trust and authority in your writing.
Of course, the clothes you choose for your words must match. A suit jacket doesn’t go with a pair of tracksuit bottoms, just as a formal introduction mismatches with a colloquial call to action.
Further, you’ve got to accessorise well. You wouldn’t wear your fanciest brooch to the cinema, nor would you consider a baseball cap suitable for your auntie’s 60th birthday party. Adding the right level of ‘pizzazz’ to your work really sells it to the reader.
First, let’s take a look in the shop window and check out all four levels of writing formality in English. Next, you’ll learn how to make the right choices for each one so you can select killer (lexical) outfits for your writing.
The Four Levels of Writing Formality
‘Register’ is difficult to master, even for native speakers. In addition to language, it relies on culture and social customs. Being able to switch registers is a key social skill that demonstrates an understanding of your environment and competence in any given situation.
Unlike grammar, formality has few hard rules, so in some situations being close enough will get you there. If you are told to wear a collar to a work social event, a short-sleeve shirt, or even a polo would work (but wear a Hawaiian shirt and you could be accused of malicious compliance).
Essentially, there are two registers — formal and informal.
What determines the level of formality is the setting, the people involved in the interaction, and the purpose of the conversation. In writing, it’s much the same — the setting is the context (newspaper, blog post), the people are the readers/audience, and the purpose is your objective when writing.
Linguists have identified four different levels of formality in English (plus a bonus one that you don’t really need to worry about).
- Formal Standard English
Used for speeches, lectures, and situations with no interaction.
Little personal emotion or opinion is expressed.
Example: It is both my pleasure and an honour to welcome our esteemed class of 2022. Mothers and fathers in the audience, you should be proud. Graduates, you are progressive, upstanding and valuable members of society. We congratulate you today.
- Consultative Standard English
Used for news reporting, emails to employers, and applications.
Used in contexts with strict editorial procedures or for relationships governed by strict social protocol.
Example: I am writing to apply for the Dickens Scholarship as I believe I meet the criteria for selection and would make an excellent contribution to the conference.
- Casual Language
Used for faster digital contexts (social media/blogs) and messages between friends.
Typified by loose sentence structure and vernacular speech.
Example: I wasn’t sure what you wanted for dinner, so I made a quick pasta dish. Is that OK?
- Colloquial / Intimate Language
Used between close friends, family or partners.
Typified by slang, pet names, inside jokes and non-grammatical abbreviations.
Example: Did you see the Spurs game? Absolute joke! Our defence has got more holes than a sieve. FML.
The ‘bonus’ level of formality I mentioned is known as ‘frozen language’. These are set phrases due to legal wording (e.g. wedding vows, receiving your rights after arrest).
How to Identity Writing Formality
What makes clothes more formal or elegant is not just one thing. It’s a combination of many factors — the shape and colour, as well as the cut of the fabric and the design. Writing is similar. There are many elements that determine register.
The style (vocabulary)
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 (in syllables and characters) and are more commonly used in speaking. These are best for internal messages, blogging and informal texts.
Examples: give up, ask, build, pick, put down
Latinate words are considered higher register. These are the posh, more technical-sounding words we use in academia and formal situations. They often have cognates in other Latin-based European languages.
Examples: relinquish, inquire, construct, select, humiliate
The size (length of phrase)
Formal writing is often more long-winded. It uses set phrases which are longer than is required for conveying the meaning of a sentence.
For example, a speaker might welcome guests as follows: “It is my pleasure to welcome each and every one of you.” Instead of the final six words, they could say ‘everyone,’ but the former phrase adds deliberate formality.
This is true of prepositional phrases too.
e.g., ‘In order to encourage applications from candidates of different nationalities, a variety of separate press releases will be issued.’
The prepositions in this sentence could be reduced from five to one.
‘The company will issue separate press releases to encourage international applicants.’
(the trick here is to transform nominal forms into adjectives to remove the need for prepositions).
The cut (grammar)
How a writer chooses to construct a sentence also determines register.
More formal writing includes a higher number of complex sentences, especially ones that begin with a dependent clause.
Other markers of grammatical formality include the passive voice (e.g., will be issued), the subjunctive mood (e.g., they strongly suggested investors be present), and inversion (e.g., not only did they default on the loan, but they also went bankrupt).
The accessories (expressions and colloquialisms)
Accessories like jewellery add flair to an outfit. In writing, accessories attract the attention of the reader. Formal writing seeks to avoid this, while informal writing adds a host of extras — idioms, similes, abbreviations, colloquial phrases, question tags and conversational filler words.
How to Ensure you Make the Right Choices
By now, you are probably wondering how you ever choose what to wear in the morning. It’s easy when you know where you are going. A daily Tweet or another email chasing client payment is probably the same. You’ve done it before, so you know how it should look. Finding the right register won’t be difficult.
However, when you’re writing something new (a yearly financial report, an important presentation, an in-depth article, a staff newsletter, or a snappy ad campaign), it’s a good idea to carefully consider which outfit is appropriate for your writing. That begins before you type the first word. Here’s how to nail your register and dazzle the audience with the right look.
- Take a moment to fully understand the context, audience, and purpose of your writing.
- If necessary, analyse good examples from the type of writing you wish to produce.
- Imagine you are writing to one person. How would you address them?
- Think about whether it’s appropriate to use localised English or simple English. Digital text is often written for non-native speakers.
- If you are looking to simplify your text, check the thesaurus for synonyms you recognise. They’re probably Germanic words.
- If you want more formality or complexity, consider switching out phrasal verbs and simpler terms for latinate words. Check an etymology dictionary for more information on the history of words.
- Search the web for typical uses of the word. Online dictionaries have plenty of examples, as well as labels and notes on formal, antiquated and colloquial words. Make sure your vocab matches your desired level of formality.
- Finally, search your writing for phrases, idioms, passive voice, and grammatical constructions that don’t match the rest of the text.
There you have it.
You’ve checked out your writing in the mirror and it is looking good!
Next time you send your words out into the world, make sure they are wearing an outfit that perfectly matches the reader they will meet.
This article used the following sources of information:
Heylighen and Dewaele, Formality of Language
Study Smarter, Levels of formality
Philip Charter is a writing coach from the UK who works with multilingual content writers. He is also the author of two collections of short fiction and Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, a novella-in-flash.