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I am rather useless at writing formal English and sometimes find that I can come across informal with my choice of words. So I wondered what common words and phrases should be avoided when writing an essay.

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Mar 29 '11 at 7:56

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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Somewhat difficult to answer. Perhaps you could post a snippet of something you wrote in what you thought was a formal manner and we can offer suggestions? –  morganpdx Mar 28 '11 at 23:00
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You could post this at the writers.stackexchange site too. This seems like something they might like. –  kitukwfyer Mar 29 '11 at 1:50
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This question should be moved to writers. –  nohat Mar 29 '11 at 7:56

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I'm not sure if there's a good, quick fix for this. I learned how to write English in an intelligent, formal manner from learning German, and reading lots, and lots, of English.

Anyhow, avoid "kind of" and "sort of." That used to drive my English teachers crazy.

Also avoid the verb "to be" when possible. Sometimes "to be" is the best option, but not as often as many people use it. If you can restate some "is adjective" as a verb, do it and see if it works. If it does, keep it. If it's too painful...still try to think "it hurts" before you give up. ;) The same can be said of "is verbing." Sometimes that's the best construction to use, and if you think it is, don't hesitate, but if you think using just a single verb works just as well, do that. If nothing else it will give your sentences a little more variety.

Furthermore: Not having lots of unnecessary "to be"s scattered around your paper will make it cleaner, and by extension, more "formal." As can be seen in the comments, there are a number of people who don't agree with me on this, or the converse that having too many "to be"s can make your writing seem immature. So, Note: I'm not saying "to be" is some hideous disease that needs to be rooted out of all writing. It's a good verb. I'm rather fond of it myself. I'll give you an example of what seems to me an unnecessary "to be":

"Bob is always careful when driving his kids to school." I think this would be better rewritten without the is: "Bob always takes care when driving his kids to school." or "Bob always drives carefully when taking his kids to school." It's a small thing, and the effect is negligible in one sentence, but imagine reading how Bob "is" 50 different adjectives. I, personally, would grow to dislike Bob rather quickly. Reading that Bob does 50 different things is not the same thing at all, in my opinion. I hope I've made myself clearer on that. :)

Avoid the first and second person like the plague... I would honestly advise against bringing the anonymous "one" and that poor, exhausted "reader" into it as well. Find some way to rephrase the sentence. There seems to be some odd stigma against passive voice, but I, personally, prefer it to using "one." IMHO, "it might be thought that..." sounds better than "one might think that..." but "it might seem that..." is even better. (Another case where replacing "to be..." with another verb is an improvement, both because it gets rid of the passive voice, which will make some people happy, and because it's just that slightest bit easier to read.) Better yet would be to leave all "might"s out of it. Imply every action you can to the author/whatever and be definite about it. "It seems (based on blah) that..." is better than "it might seem that..."...Being specific gets rid of a lot of ambiguity wherein lies much informality. (...Or should I have said "specificity?" Which one sounds more "formal?" ^.^)

Finally, as I noted in a comment, use the word that works best, regardless of origin, apparent intelligence, etc..

To get a better handle on what word works best, I suggest reading some classics. The best way, IMHO, to learn "classy" vocabulary, is to read classy, English fiction....Anything (and everything) will help, but it's pretty safe to consider Dickens and his ilk to be a crash-course in good "formal" writing.

Good luck!

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+1 for avoid "kind of" and "sort of" –  Michael Easter Mar 29 '11 at 2:47
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Not really a -1, but... "to be" is not that bad per se. Your "death" example, for example, changes meaning. "He is near death" is a state, while "He nears death" (apart from sounding slightly wrong) puts emphasis on the process. I'd prefer the former in almost all contexts, your teachers can go and... do something unpleasant. Teachers are not w/o fail, and to just take everything a teacher (or some commenter here, me included) says at face value is not the best course of action. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 29 '11 at 10:25
    
But still a +1 for the intro: read. Lots. The best advice of all. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 29 '11 at 10:29
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+1 for a good answer. Just one nit: "it might seem that..." isn't passive voice. Passive voice involves the subject of the sentence being acted on rather than doing the acting. –  Kelly C Hess Mar 29 '11 at 14:20
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I have never heard of the stricture against "to be" in the construction given above. Why would it be considered immature or simple? –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 29 '11 at 14:23

Here are some guidelines that might help:

  • Avoid contractions. Prefer It is interesting to note... over It's interesting to note...
  • Avoid use of the 2nd person. Prefer One might think that... over You might think that...
  • It is probably not useful to list examples of slang here, but when in doubt, check the dictionary. If it defines the word/phrase as slang, then choose another.
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Avoid clichés. Use the right word, and make sure each word is doing work. Keeping your prose clean is one of the best ways to achieve a formal style.

And focus on your audience: formal to an editor may not be formal to a committee or an employer, etc. If you're writing for a class or for work, see if there is a style guide or manual that you use.

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When there's a choice of particular word, favor the Latinate one.

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I hate that. Whenever I read someone using Latinate words just for the heck of it, I want to beat him to death with a hardback copy of Roget's Thesaurus. –  Malvolio Mar 29 '11 at 0:32
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I don't like overdosing on latin either, and I think this advice is a superficial sort of salve... but it can give a formal gloss to a paper. Always use caution, though. A lot of "synonyms" are only synonyms in the grossest sense. If you get a Germanic word that fits perfectly, use it. Don't use a less perfect smart-sounding word just because it sounds smart, especially if you're unfamiliar with it. As I said, the formality of latin is superficial, and if the latin screws up your meaning and makes you sound like an idiot...? No amount of supposed "formality" is going to rescue you. –  kitukwfyer Mar 29 '11 at 1:56
    
@kitukwyfer: The question moved so I didn't see comments til now... My answer is only descriptive. Other things being equal (if that is ever possible), the latinate phrasing will -be- more formal (I can't think of any pairs of romance derived/Germanic derived pairs where the Germanic one is more formal than the Latinate one. As to -quality-, that is, as you note, quite another thing entirely. –  Mitch Apr 19 '11 at 22:22

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