Learning to write in formal register is easy once you understand the basics.
When you write a job application, a business letter, an essay, or an academic article, you need to use the formal register.
It’s not only used in writing. In speaking, we use the formal voice when addressing a doctor or judge or in ceremonies such as a marriage.
You certainly know when people speak formally. But what are the elements that change between formal and informal registers?
How to write in formal register
There are six levels of formality for language register in writing and speaking.
The two we use the most are formal and informal.
You naturally use an informal voice when you speak to friends or write social media or blog posts.
But when you write a cover letter for a job application, communicate with a government agency, or write an academic essay, you use the formal voice.
How do we control the difference between the two levels?
It’s a combination of changes in grammar and vocabulary, and in writing, modifying punctuation.
Another element is the point of view we use. Formal writing tends to avoid using the first person where possible.
It might sound like a lot of elements to consider, but it is easier than it might seem.
Let’s look at each of the most essential elements in a little detail.
Each point has examples to make it easy to understand.
1. Remove all contractions
If there is a number one rule for formal writing, this is it.
You might think that it only applies to writing. But when we speak formally, we also use full words.
It’s with pleasure that I’m here today to accept the award you’ve bestowed upon me. Informal
It is with pleasure that I am here today to accept the award you have bestowed upon me. Formal
The example sentence above is definitely formal because it uses the words bestowed, accept, upon, and pleasure.
When we mix words like these with contractions, it sounds and reads awkwardly.
2. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations
Similar to contractions, you should rewrite all abbreviations in full. The same applies to acronyms.
In reference to my letter to the SG of the WHO, I am still awaiting a reply. Informal
In reference to my letter to the Secretary-General of the World Health Organization, I am still awaiting a reply. Formal
Other common examples are, e.g., info and memo. Use, for example, information and memorandum.
3. Avoid using phrasal verbs
The formal register tends to avoid Anglo-Saxon verbs such as hit, put, cut, got, and sometimes even go.
But phrasal verbs like give up, go away, put up with, go on and look into should be avoided whenever possible.
We got your complaint, and we assure you that we will look into it asap. Informal
We received your complaint, and we assure you that we will investigate it as soon as possible. Formal
When you can’t think of a single word verb to replace a phrasal verb, use a thesaurus to help you.
4. Use indirect questions
Direct questions are generally informal. So for questions in formal writing, you need to rewrite them in an indirect form.
Indirect questions use an introductory phrase and often remove the question adverb, do.
What time does the meeting start? Direct
Could you tell me what time the meeting starts? Indirect
Do you work in New York? Direct
I was wondering if you work in New York? Indirect
5. Remove slang and idioms
To maintain formality, be aware of slang and clichés. Also, avoid idioms and try to find better alternatives.
We sent your application to HR, and we are waiting for them to okay it. But sometimes, these things move at a snail’s pace. Informal
We sent your application to Human Resources, and we are waiting for them to approve it. However, these things often move slowly. Formal
Other common words to avoid include cool, awesome, and yeah.
6. Write numbers under one hundred
Knowing when to spell out numbers is an important point in formal writing.
Generally, you need to spell out numbers under one hundred and use digits for larger numbers.
But if a sentence starts with a number, it is always written in full.
2,000 people attended the exhibition, but only 45 people bought our products. However, we have 125 new contacts who may be interested in buying at a later date. Informal
Two thousand people attended the exhibition, but only forty-five people bought our products. However, we have 125 new contacts who may be interested in buying at a later date. Formal
When speaking or writing using the informal register, we tend to use and, but and so, a lot.
The seven short coordinating conjunctions, for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so are often referred to by the acronym, Fanboys.
It is best in formal writing to replace these with longer linking words.
We received your delivery, but some items were damaged. So I have sent a list of the items you need to replace. Informal
We received your delivery. However, some items were damaged. Therefore, I have sent a list of the items you need to replace. Formal
8. Use longer verbs
As mentioned in point three, when you write in formal register, you can often replace short Anglo-Saxon verbs with longer and better alternatives.
We got a new car last week, and I couldn’t wait to go for a drive. Informal
Can you put it on the table for me? Informal
We’ll have to cut that item from the agenda. Informal
We purchased a new car last week, and I was eager to drive it. Formal
Can you place it on the table for me? Formal
We will have to remove that item from the agenda. Formal
9. Use more complex sentences
Longer and more complex sentences are very common in formal writing.
Try joining short sentences together with perhaps relative pronouns.
We are waiting for the delivery. It should have arrived yesterday. But it is a result of the transport strike. Informal
We are waiting for the delivery which should have arrived yesterday if it was not for the transport strike. Formal
10. Use noun phrases
It is one of the best little tricks when trying to write formally. All you need to do is use an object and turn it into the subject.
The big benefit is that it will help you avoid lots of sentences starting with I and you.
I went to the exhibition, and it was a great opportunity to meet new clients. Informal
The exhibition I attended was an excellent opportunity to meet new clients. Formal
If you follow the ten key points above, it’s easy to control your level of formality.
But as with all forms of writing, try to avoid using the passive voice when you write in formal register.
Also, be selective with your vocabulary and try to use longer and better words whenever possible.
But if there is one takeaway, the biggest mistake you can make is using contractions in formal writing.