I understand that sometimes formal terms are superior to informal terms because they're sometimes more specific or succinct, but oftentimes this doesn't seem the case. In those cases, what is the benefit of using formal terms instead of informal ones? Here are some examples:

  • Get is less formal than obtain, even though get is more succinct and they both seem equally specific.
  • Quote is less formal than citation, even though quote is more succinct.
  • Blow up is less formal than explode, even though neither seems more specific of succinct than the other.
  • Seems is less formal than appears.
  • Let is less formal than permit, even though let is more succinct.


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    Just so you're aware, there is nothing holy about "succinct" which makes it the single most desirable goal for any given piece of writing. Sometimes you don't want the shortest route between two points. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 13 '14 at 13:29
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    Pedantic disagreement: "blow up" is neither more specific nor succinct than "explode". The former could potentially mean "inflate", so context is required to be specific, which inherently makes it less succinct, as well. The latter really only means one thing. :) – Zayne S Halsall Dec 13 '14 at 16:03
  • I see your point, Zayne. – Kelmikra Dec 13 '14 at 16:12
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    In general, "politer" phrasings tend to be longer phrasings, tend to be more formal phrasings, and tend to use words derived from Norman French, Latin, and Greek (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon). – Jasper Dec 15 '14 at 2:34
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    @Kyth'Py1k -- You are probably overestimating the importance of succinctness as a reason for using formal terms. – Jasper Dec 15 '14 at 3:55

Yes, words tend to have a level of formality, and there are often words with the same or very similar meanings that differ only in level of formality.

While being succinct is a good goal in writing, it is not the only possible goal. Synonyms often have different connotation or tone, and sometimes we want to set a certain tone.

For example, consider these two snippets of text:

The night was black as pitch as Sally crept fearfully across the glen. Ominous noises assailed her, and she cowered in terror.


It was dark out as Sally walked across the field. She got scared at a bunch of strange sounds.

Both say essentially the same thing, but the tone is totally different. The first sounds like it might come from a horror novel, the second from a casual conversation.

We had a post on here about formal language not long ago. I couldn't find it again with a quick search. But basically, human beings consider some events to require formal language because they are very important. Formal language sets a certain tone. Like at a wedding, preachers sometimes say, "That which God has joined together, let no man tear asunder." It would mean the same thing if he had said, "Hey, these two are married now, it's like a God thing, so please, nobody do anything to break them up." Why doesn't the preacher say it that way? Because such informal language seems inappropriate to something as important and solemn as a marriage.

On that other question someone asked, Why do I need formal language? Why can't I just say, Hey, I know this is important?

For the same reason that in a horror novel you can't just say, Hey, what happened next was really scary. Just SAYING that something is scary or solemn or romantic or funny or whatever does not set the tone. You have to use appropriate words that really DO set the tone. Saying, "This joke is really funny" doesn't make it funny. Saying, "This statement is very profound and moving" doesn't make it profound and moving. Etc.

  • I don't see how you're analogy applies. Saying that that writing ok instead of OK is very important doesn't make it important, but neither does saying, "Thou who hath produced errata in the spelling of "OK" shall beget great misfortunes" doesn't make it important either. – Kelmikra Dec 17 '14 at 1:49
  • Sure, because mis-spelling a word is not profound and important. You need a combination of content and tone to achieve an affect. Either alone is not sufficient. – Jay Dec 17 '14 at 14:20
  • @ Jay Why exactly is good content alone insufficient? Would one saying, "Yo dawgs, this here planet's goin to be turned to nothin' but rubble in a week!" and subsequently supported it with strong evidence be treated as any less important than someone who said the same message, but formally? – Kelmikra Dec 17 '14 at 22:35
  • It's not that it would make the event less important. It's that people would consider your attitude inappropriate. Have you ever been in the military? I used to be a consultant to the U.S. military. When people are about to go into battle and risk being killed, or captured and tortured, the general doesn't say, "Well, you guys go on out and fight now. Try not to screw up and killed." No, they have layers and layers of formality, from saluting and calling each other by formal titles, to elaborate ceremonies when someone is promoted. ... – Jay Dec 18 '14 at 14:27
  • ... In an ordinary job, if you do well the boss might say, "Hey, good job on the Taylor project, Bob. I'll see if I can get you a bigger raise this year." In the military, there will be an elaborate ceremony where they present him with a piece of cloth and medal to pin to his shirt. It occurred to me at the time that all of that formality is seen as appropriate because these people are risking their lives, and treating it casually would have been seen as massively inappropriate. Ditto weddings and funerals and graduating from college, each in their own way. – Jay Dec 18 '14 at 14:32

A low-class answer:

It is good to write clearly and to-the-point. It is smart to use words that people understand. Most people talk "informally". Most common words can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. Almost all of these words are "vulgar", and some are rude.

Most people who grew up speaking English know exactly what these words mean. If you say something in plain English, they can imagine it in their heads. This makes it easy to catch liars and scammers.

Some people talk in "street slang." (For example, in "ebonics".) They'll get yer point better if you talk like dem. But I ain't good with that jive, so I might screw it up. So I will stick to words I do understand.

A formal response:

Succinctness has great value. When discussing science, legal matters, or other technical topics, it is convenient to use specific words with precise denotations and appropriate connotations. Educated people, lawyers, bureaucrats, and scientists speak "formally" -- especially when they are creating regulations or discussing technical topics. Many formal terms are derived from Norman French. Most technical terms were invented by the intelligentsia using Latin and Greek roots. Latin and Greek vocabulary is the opposite of vulgar. Formal vocabulary allows even intimate topics to be discussed dispassionately.

Many "formal" terms are designed for discussing abstractions. Furthermore, authors and lawmakers can precisely define what "formal" words mean. This enables discussing things on an abstract level -- people are less likely to fixate on ordinary meanings of words. Using formal terms lets people speak more subtly.

Injecting mundane terms into "formal" discussions can be distracting. Rude words make educated terminology seem like "gobbledygook".

  • I understand that many formal and technical terms are better than other terms for discussing abstractions, but some formal terms, such as the ones in the OP, don't seem to have such an advantage. What do you mean by "hung up on"? – Kelmikra Dec 16 '14 at 3:12

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