formal tone & register

Written English is more formal than spoken English in several ways. In ENG 101, we expect you to try to use more formal structures in your writing. The following are some guidelines for developing a more formal voice:
  • Avoid informal slang like guys, cool, etc. Use formal vocabulary like people, fashionable, etc.
  • Try to avoid basic or vague words like get, bits, lots of, stuff, things, big, small, good, bad, etc., but use more specific synonyms like acquire, elements, many, possessions, objects, major, minor, beneficial, harmful, etc.
  • Avoid informal pronouns to address the reader such as “you”, “we”, etc. Especially avoid using “you” to talk about people in general and always specify specific (types of) actors, such as, e.g., students, the educated, people, society, etc.
  • Avoid personal language such as “I/me/my” to state your opinion. Remember, we expect to find your opinion in an essay you wrote – everything that is not attributed to others will be assumed to be your opinion. You may use empty subjects, passives and nominalization to avoid them, e.g., “It is true that + fs”, “x should be done” or “The idea that x is y is valid because …” etc.
  • Try not to use simple coordinating conjunctions (“And … But … So…”) to begin sentences; use formal linkers instead, e.g., “In addition, … However, … Therefore, …” etc.
  • Avoid contractions like “it’s” – use the full form of words instead, e.g., “it is”
  • Try to avoid very short, simple and choppy sentences with a single sj and verb. Try to nominalize to give more information in less words and try to join clauses into complex sentences with conjunctions, relative/noun clauses, etc. E.g., (simplistic) “But Aristotle justified Greeks keeping slaves. He said it was ‘natural’. And he argued that people could achieve happiness. But he never argued that everyone should achieve it.” (improved) “Nevertheless, Aristotle, who justified Greek slavery as ‘natural’, never argued that everyone ought to achieve happiness just because they could”
  • Try to avoid relying on rhetorical questions, (e.g., “Is this a good idea? No.”) use reported questions instead, e.g., “It is not clear why …” / “…the question of if/whether…” etc.
  • You may start sentences with “It…” and “There…” especially to hedge/emphasize how an opinion should be approached, e.g., “It is possible to criticize X’s idea that …” or “There is reason to doubt the claim that …” etc
  • Try to avoid hyperbole, exaggeration and exclamation (e.g.,”This idea is insanely psychopathic,” or “What a horrifying nightmare that would be!”). Remember, your “academic ethos” demands that you use logos (logical proof) rather than pathos (emotional persuasion), so keep a calm and reasonable tone (e.g., “This idea is very problematic because …” or “This would be highly undesirable because …” etc.)
  • Avoid strong claims and generalisations (e.g., it is, must, always, everyone, definitely, totally, etc.). Remember, even scientific truths should be considered as hypotheses awaiting refutation. Limit the extent of your generalizations and use more cautious language and modal verbs to hedge your claims,(e.g., it may be, may have to, often/sometimes, probably, in the majority of cases, etc.).
  • It is important to maintain a balance between formality and clarity to appeal to the general, educated reader
  • If formal language obscures or complicates the relationships between subject and object(s) in a sentence, or if the vocabulary is too technical or subject specific, your writing may be unclear
  • You may use personal language to express an opinion once or twice in an essay, perhaps in the thesis or final thought (e.g., “I will argue that…”), but don’t rely on personal assurances as proof of a claim (“I believe that x is true, so it is true”).
  • See also the FAEP Writing Criteria on “tone” and “language of academic writing”