Geneseo seal

Good Writing

what is good writing?

audience and purpose


care and imagination

lucidity, simplicity, directness

myths about good writing

Writing and Convention

conventions of writing

formal and informal writing

research and writing

writing in a discipline

grammar and usage

common errors

The Process of Writing

outside the classroom

inside the classroom

Citation Styles

mla | apa | acs




world wide words

english grammar

language log

geoff nunberg

about the guide

Creative Commons License
The Guide by Paul Schacht and Celia Easton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

SUNY Geneseo's Writing Guide

Formal and informal writing

Men living in democratic ages do not readily comprehend the utility of forms; they feel an instinctive contempt for them.
--Alexis de Tocqueville

The distinction between "formal" and "informal" writing was probably easier to grasp when American culture was more sensitive to "form," in the sense of that word which pairs attendance at work, school, or entertainments with particular "forms" of dress or "forms" of behavior. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early nineteenth century, we often feel that rules and standards that dictate dress or manners violate our sense of democracy. Why shouldn't we go to a Wall Street interview in shorts? Why shouldn't we call the President of the College by his first name? Why can't we write a paper any way we please?

The concept of register

The difference between "formal" and "informal" is not that between "grammatical" and "ungrammatical." The difference is best understood as an instance of what linguists call register. The speaker of any language learns at a very young age that certain speech situations call for certain ways of putting words together. A child of six or seven will speak one way to fellow children, another way to parents, and perhaps even a third way to teachers. Adults speak one way to children and another way to adult friends and colleagues. What varies in these diverse situations is not simply tone of voice and vocabulary (the insertion of please and thank you, for example, in children's exchanges with adults) but syntax as well: the English professor who studiously adheres to noun-pronoun agreement rules when addressing students (Everyone has his or her weakness) may well kick up his or her heels at home and join the majority of English speakers in employing the "singular their" (Everyone has their weakness).

In written as well as spoken English, we all command a variety of registers. Not only do you use different registers in writing a History paper and writing to a friend, you also use different registers in writing to a friend and writing to a prospective employer.

The social dimension

It is social rather than grammatical codes that determine the register we adopt in a given situation - which returns us to Tocqueville's point. Americans seem to harbor an instinctive distrust of all social codes (rivaled only, Tocqueville noted, by their countervailing passion for social conformity). This distrust has its healthy consequences, but it also makes it hard for us, at times, to acknowledge the inherently social nature of much human behavior, linguistic behavior included.

The relation between writer and audience is a social relation, of which the relation between student writer and professorial audience is a particular instance. In saying that the latter calls for a "formal" register, we mean that it requires your adherence to a number of conventions. A few of these conventions are listed below. You should note that they do not carry equal weight with all of your professors; for example, not all professors object to the use of contractions. When in doubt about the requirements of your audience, ask.

By convention, formal prose is usually ...