The Characteristics of a Formal Prose Style

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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"Formal prose creates distance between rhetor and audience while informality minimizes distance" (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell et al., The Rhetorical Act, 2015). (Blend Images/Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images)

In composition, formal style is a broad term for speech or writing marked by an impersonal, objective, and precise use of language.

A formal prose style is typically used in orations, scholarly books and articles, technical reports, research papers, and legal documents. Contrast with informal style and colloquial style.

In The Rhetorical Act (2015), Karlyn Kohrs Campbell et al. observe that formal prose is "strictly grammatical and uses complex sentence structure and precise, often technical vocabulary.

Informal prose is less strictly grammatical and uses short, simple sentences and ordinary, familiar words."

Observations

  • "Whenever we speak or write, we make certain assumptions about what kind of language is appropriate to the situation at hand. Basically, this amounts to deciding how formal or informal to be. Rhetorical style ranges from the formality of a presidential address or scholarly article on the one hand to the informality of a radio or TV interview or a conversation--perhaps even a text or twitter message--with a friend on the other. Generally speaking, as style becomes more informal, it becomes more conversational or colloquial."
    (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Susan Schultz Huxman, and Thomas A. Burkholder, The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 5th ed. Cengage, 2015)
     
  • Formal and Informal Styles
    "Today rhetoricians speak of formal and informal styles. The former is characterized by more advanced vocabulary, longer, more complex sentences, use of one instead of you, and is appropriate for more formal occasions such as lectures, scholarly papers, or ceremonial addresses. The informal style has feature such as contractions, the use of the first and second person pronouns I and you, simpler vocabulary, and shorter sentences. It is appropriate for informal essays and certain kinds of letters."
    (Winifred Bryan Horner, Rhetoric in the Classical Tradition. St. Martin's, 1988)
     
  • Characteristics of a Formal Style
    - "Formal style is characterized by long and complex sentences, a scholarly vocabulary, and a consistently serious tone. Grammatical rules are scrupulously observed, and the subject matter is substantial. The selection may include references to literary works or allusions to historical and classical figures. Absent are contractions, colloquial expressions, and an identified speaker, with impersonal one or the reader frequently used as the subject."
    (Fred Obrecht, Minimum Essentials of English, 2nd ed. Barron's, 1999)

    - "These are some typical characteristics of formal style:
    • The tone is polite, but impersonal. The pronoun you isn't usually appropriate in formal writing.
    • The language of formal writing doesn't include contractions, slang, or humor. It is often technical. In an attempt to avoid pronouns like I, you, and me, some writers overuse the passive voice, which makes their writing stuffy and indirect. . . .
    • Sentence structure includes lengthy sentences with complex subordination, long verb phrases, and the expletive pronouns it and there for subjects. Since the information content of formal, technical, or legal documents is high, both readers and writers expect the reading pace to be slower than in informal writing.
    Formal style is appropriate for official documents, computer documentation, scholarly articles and books, technical reports, or letters with a negative message."
    (Deborah Dumaine. Instant-Answer Guide to Business Writing. Writers Club Press, 2003)