It seems to me that formal writing has many practices that at best seem arbitrary and at worst seem harmful. Here are some examples:

  • It discourages using contractions, even though they make writing more concise.
  • It discourages using number digits under 11 in favor of writing letters out, even thought using digits makes writing more concise.
  • It discourages using special characters such as ~, @, %, &, even though using them is more concise than writing out the corresponding words.
  • It forbids the use of emoticons, even though they make writing more clear by showing the tone of voice and feelings of the writer.

Any explanations on the benefit of these practices would be appreciated.

  • 1
    What exactly is "formal writing"?
    – user5645
    Dec 9, 2014 at 12:18
  • What: I don't know its exact definition. Those are just rules I have heard of in English class and when googling "how to write formally."
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:13
  • I have removed your edit only because it's a brand new and separate question, and on Stack Exchange we try to keep to one question per post. It's a valid question, though, so if you want to post it separately, by all means do so. Dec 10, 2014 at 14:45

5 Answers 5


Let's see, in order:

It discourages using contractions, even though they make writing more concise.

I'll confess never understood this one. I do use contractions in formal writing. They're invisible.

It discourages using number digits under 11 in favor of writing letters out, even thought using digits makes writing more concise.

This is a style issue. In AP style, for example, numbers under 10 are written out, because single digits can so easily be mistyped, but 10 and above are written out (except at the beginning of a sentence). Mostly for consistency.

It discourages using special characters such as ~, @, %, &, even though using them is more concise than writing out the corresponding words.

Generally speaking, symbols take a half-second to translate from visual to verbal. It may look more concise, but you're actually making your text longer to the internal ear of the reader.

  • The percentage symbol has a single specific meaning, and should only be used when discussing percentages. ("We found 17% salts.") Just because this symbol exists doesn't mean you'd ever use it in the middle of a paragraph of copy. ("The % of salt in the solution rose.") That really takes my brain another flicker of time to render.
  • The ampersand should be restricted to proper names ("Johnson & Johnson") where it's become part of the visual unit, for the same reason. ("We added the base & then waited for the reaction.")

  • The atmark is now used almost exclusively for the Internet, and would severely distract or confuse most readers if it was used outside that context. ("We found that @ those levels, salts were not discernible.")

  • I'm not even sure what ~ is meant to mean — approximately? — so there's another argument against the symbol: it doesn't matter if it's concise if it's not clear.

It forbids the use of emoticons, even though they make writing more clear by showing the tone of voice and feelings of the writer.

Formal writing shouldn't have excessive emotions anyway, but if you as a writer are incapable of expressing your tone and feelings without little pictograms, then the problem is that you need to work on your vocabulary and your descriptive skills.

  • 1
    One minor note: "@" is used by accountants and sales people when expressing a quantity and a price or value, especially in a long list. Like if you were listing the contents of a warehouse, you might write "Model 327B, 20 @ $5.50 = $110.00; Model 824X, 32 @ $8.25 = $264.00" etc. That would certainly not be considered formal writing. I agree I can't think of a use for an "@" in formal writing except to express an email address.
    – Jay
    Dec 9, 2014 at 14:36
  • 1
    @Jay Good point. It's jargon usage for certain industries, and not formal writing as you note, but not Internet-related. Dec 9, 2014 at 16:02
  • You make a good point that it's easier to mistype single digits than words, but if one is concerned with errors, why not just check or double-check the digits to make sure they're correct? I'd think it would be just as fast but would also be faster to read. Also, why don't mathematicians write numbers less than 10? For consistency?
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:21
  • 1
    @Kyth'Py1k I think special characters are harder to read in copy both because they are out of place and because they are symbols, one-character pictures, which you then have to translate into words in order to continue. It only takes a half-second longer, but your entire premise is that these are shortcuts which should be part of formal writing. If the symbol makes reading take longer, it's not a short cut. Dec 10, 2014 at 0:07
  • 2
    The slowdown for a skilled reader is true in all cases: numbers, symbols, emoticons. We take whole phrases in, many words at a time, creating a smooth uniform flow as with spoken speech. Each disruption requires a shift of focus, first translating the symbol into its intended word/meaning and then replacing it within the flow. And the savings are hardly ever worth it. If you type @, you save one character. If you type & or 1, you save two. Besides: & the savings r hardly ever worth it. If u type @, you save 1 character. If u type & or 1, u save 2.
    – SF.
    Dec 10, 2014 at 12:07

"Formal writing" is like the use of any type of language. It conveys not just information, but signifies information about you (the speaker / writer), your credibility, and your overall purpose.

For example, "We got 65% hits!" versus "A success rate of sixty-five percent was obtained." technically conveys the same information, but the impact on your reader changes drastically.

I once read that when writing, you should focus on three things: content (what are you writing about), audience (who are you writing to), and purpose (why are you writing this). The tone of your writing should be influenced by all three aspects, but primarily the last two.

Edited to add: Why does this increase credibility? Well, it doesn't, necessarily. A speaker talking to programmers may say, "I grok your pain" and gain credibility. Basically, every discourse community has customs, and language is a large part of those customs. You're referencing commonplaces, and the mere fact that you know them gives you credibility. "Formal" language is just a type of commonplace among "those in command". David Bartholomae wrote an article, "Inventing the University" that talks about this.

  • I understand that writing formally tends to increase one's credibility, but I'd like to know the reasoning for this. Do you happen to know?
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:32
  • 2
    +1 Great Answer! Without significantly enhancing your message, I would offer that the fourth "thing" to address in writing is yourself (as in the image reflected back at you when you look in a mirror. Proper grooming of your language skills is equivalent to any other grooming habit; it enhances self-esteem, confidence and indirectly, performance. Dec 10, 2014 at 2:46
  • Henry Taylor -- great point. And not only yourself as in "practice writing" but "present yourself consistently to your social group". And this is complicated when you talk about an online presence. What constitutes "you" online? Kyth'Py1k -- I think the answer is complicated, and I would like to reference a few sources -- should get to it tonight. Dec 10, 2014 at 14:22

Without being that educated in the matter, I would think it would have to do with removing personality quirks, specific cultural and social styles, references and shorthand from the writing as much as possible so that anyone can pick up the book and understand it.

Dialogue can of course contain all of this, such as slang, but the writing trying to describe something should, in my opinion, try to be more universal, and the more "professional" the situation in which the writing will be used, the more this would be required of the writer.

As an extreme example, you wouldn't see scientific papers with emoticons and shorthand which may or may not be known to all readers.

  • I'm not so sure about this explanation, as it seems that formal writing itself is largely a cultural and social style. Additionally, many things, such as contractions and some well-know emoticons, don't seem to prevent some from understanding text -- at least, don't prevent understanding more than using very formal terms.
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:36

You could say the same about all sorts of cultural and social actions. Like consider formal dress: When a man wants to appear more formal, he wears a tie. Why? What purpose does a tie serve? Why is it that putting a tie around your neck is considered formal, but putting a handkerchief around your neck is decidedly informal? We could discuss the history behind such customs, but most people today don't know the history. They just know that it's the custom.

In some circumstances human beings want to be "casual" and in some circumstances we want to be "formal", and there are conventions for each so that others know which manner you are trying to present.

To most people, we recognize the importance of some events by adding formality in clothes, manner, and yes, speech. If you attended the funeral of a friend and the preacher began by saying, "Yup, old Bob's gonna start smelling pretty bad here soon. 'Bet his wife's glad to be rid of the jerk," etc, you would probably be offended. You would see such casual and flippant language as inappropriate to the situation.

On the other hand, if you got together with a group of friends to watch football on TV, and the host of the party was wearing a tuxedo, and before the game he stood up in front of the TV and in solemn tones announced, "Ladies and gentleman, I welcome all of you to my domicile for this, a viewing of Superbowl Number Twenty-Eight, upon the electronic television visible forthwith behind me. ..." etc, then if you did not take it as a big joke on the host's part, you would surely think him very strange to attach such formality to a casual event. It's not appropriate.

  • I don't understand; how does writing in a different style show that one recognizes something's importance? Why not just say, "I understand this is important"?
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 9, 2014 at 22:39
  • @Kyth'Py1k How does dressing differently acknowledge something's importance? And yet most people would not wear sweat pants to a wedding, because that would be considered inappropriate. Some things are just human nature. If you don't understand why people enjoy kissing or eating a fine steak, I don't know how I could explain it to you. If you don't understand why people dress, act, and speak differently at formal events, I don't know how I can explain it to you. It's just how people are.
    – Jay
    Dec 10, 2014 at 14:20
  • Do you happen to know where I could learn about why people do such customs? I've been wondering about them for a while now...
    – Kelmikra
    Dec 10, 2014 at 21:56

There seems to be some confusion about what is being discussed here.

Half of the answers are using the conventional definition of "Formal Writing", which involves the solemn and decorous application of language to convey the writer's authority as well as the meaning of their message. Formal writing, in this context, is an alternative to the casual or colloquial language of standard prose. Standard prose, by comparison, excels in blatantly expressing the writer's emotions, in addition to their message.

Each method of writing serves a specific purpose. Both should be familiar tools in the hands of any seasoned author.

The other half of the answers seem to be addressing, I believe correctly, a new definition for this established term. Here, "Formal Writing" implies any use of the language, which obeys the communally held standards of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

The alternative to this definition ignores those standards in favor of minimalistic phonetic renderings. I fear that the contractions refered to in this question are not the apostrophy-ridden abbreviations of standard colloquial language, but are instead, the attrocious missing-letter mis-spellings championed by Twitter and AIM. "R u w/me?"

In my opinion, this question explores the wisdom of maintaining minimal expectations for the competency of professional writers, in a world where the majority of readers no longer know how to recognise or participate in those minimums. This is a valid question and in an attempt to answer it here, by example, I have endeavored to write in the highest, formal english which my limited vocabulary allows...

Have I conveyed anything beyond the specific words of my message?

Have I established my authority on the subject of the English language and its evolution?

Have I, subtly and politely, expressed my anger towards where our culture and our language are heading?

Twitter-ish, to coin what I believe is a new term, is an attempt to portray the most basic meaning of a message in the minimum number of characters, digits and symbols.

English, by comparison, is the art of communicating that basic message and much, much more.

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