It is important for students to be able to distinguish between formal and informal language, and to adjust the level of formality in one's own writing to suit the situation or assignment. The following are common characteristics of formal writing.

  • Verbs of Latin origin
  • Use of passive voice
  • Impersonal tone
  • Correct use of punctuation

A common misconception students have is that long, complex sentences are formal while short, simple sentences are informal; however, this is NOT entirely true. In fact, sometimes simple sentences containing noun phrases can be quite formal. Consider the following sentences.

  • Henry had a car accident because the road conditions were poor.
  • Henry's car accident resulted from poor road conditions.

In this case, the second sentence, a simple sentence, is more formal than the first, a complex sentence. The first sentence is much more conversational. The use of noun phrases like "poor road conditions" in the second sentence makes it more formal and, therefore, more appropriate for academic writing or official reports. Look at these further examples.

  • I don't think that bosses should let their employees wear casual clothing when they come to work.
    • Casual clothing should not be permitted in the workplace.
  • The student failed the test because he was unable to fully understand the instructions.
    • The student's inability to fully understand the instructions led to his failure.