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Essay Formal Language

I want help to make my writing more formal and technical.

You can change the style of your writing through the way you plan, draft and edit your texts. To make your writing more formal:

  • Structure your writing into paragraphs with clear topic sentences.
  • Avoid contractions (e.g. didn’t, it’ll). Instead, use the full forms (e.g. did not, it will).
  • Choose formal vocabulary instead of informal vocabulary. For example, "somewhat" is more formal than "a bit", "offspring" is more formal than "babies", "insufficient" is more formal than "not enough", etc.
  • Choose language which is less intense, less emotional. For example, instead of strong words like "wonderful", "useless" or "terrible", use more moderate words such as "helpful", "poor", "inadequate" or "problematic". Instead of using absolute positives and negatives like "proof" or "wrong", academic writing often has more cautious or graded evaluations, such as "strong evidence" or "less convincing". (Note: Different disciplines/subject areas allow different levels of intensity. Check the style of books and articles for that discipline/subject.)

To make your writing more technical:

  • Build up your vocabulary with the technical terms which are used in your discipline of study (e.g. linguistics, accounting, psychology), as well as in the specific field/topic of study within that discipline (e.g. phonology within linguistics, taxation within accounting).
  • Be careful about the meaning of technical terms. Often the same word has a different meaning in another discipline. (For example, the word "discourse" is a technical term in linguistics, as well as in disciplines such as sociology and philosophy. However, "discourse" has different meanings in each discipline, and it even has different meanings within linguistics, in different specialist areas.)
  • Make sure you understand and use the key categories and relationships in your discipline: i.e. the way information and ideas are organised into groups, types and parts. (For example, in Occupational Therapy, clients' activities can be grouped into four areas: self-maintenance, rest, leisure and productivity. In the discipline of Law, law is separated into two types: common law and statute law.) The more expert you are in your discipline, the more of these you know and the more you are able to use these relationships to structure your writing, the more technical your writing will be.

For more on this topic, see the links on the right...

Levels of Formality


This handout will cover some of the major issues with appropriate language use: levels of language formality, deceitful language and euphemisms, slang and idiomatic expressions; using group-specific jargon; and biased/stereotypical language.

Contributors:OWL Content Development Staff
Last Edited: 2010-04-17 05:38:08

The level of formality you write with should be determined by the expectations of your audience and your purpose. For example, if you are writing a cover letter for a job application or a college academic essay, you would write in a formal style. If you are writing a letter to a friend, writing something personal, or even writing something for a humorous or special interest magazine when informal writing is expected, you would use a more informal style. Formality exists on a scale—in the example below, a letter of application to a known colleague can result in a semi-formal style.

Here is an example:

Formal (Written to an unknown audience): I am applying for the receptionist position advertised in the local paper. I am an excellent candidate for the job because of my significant secretarial experience, good language skills, and sense of organization.

Semi-formal (Written to a well-known individual): I am applying for the receptionist position that is currently open in the company. As you are aware, I have worked as a temporary employee with your company in this position before. As such, I not only have experience and knowledge of this position, but also already understand the company's needs and requirements for this job.

Informal (Incorrect): Hi! I read in the paper that ya'll were looking for a receptionist. I think that I am good for that job because I've done stuff like it in the past, am good with words, and am incredibly well organized.

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