What Is Formal Diction?

J. Bonner

Formal diction is a style of writing or speaking that uses complicated sentence structures, perfect grammatical form, and a wide range of vocabulary words. In general, “diction” is a word that describes the overarching style or tone of the language someone uses. People can use formal diction in a number of different settings. A formal tone is often required for final writing projects, including many essays, thesis papers, and legal documents. It might be also used in some types of oral communication, such as speeches or business presentations, but it is rarely used in more casual conversations between people. Personal interactions more frequently take the form of informal or colloquial diction that make use of simpler language and more everyday words and may tolerate certain common grammatical errors or slang terms.

Formal diction is appropriate at many college lectures.
Formal diction is appropriate at many college lectures.

Basic Characteristics

Diction in the “formal” category is frequently characterized by a narrator’s use of longer, more complex words than people are used to hearing, but at its heart the style isn’t really about appearances as much as it is about accuracy. It would be more correct to say that this type of diction involves the use of the correct words or best words at all times, no matter whether they are long or short. This way of speaking or writing might involve the use of rare or obscure words, but only if they are the best fit for the ideas trying to be conveyed. Simply finding the longest or most impressive word misses the point, since clarity and precision are the most important outcomes.

Formal diction may be utilized in business presentations.
Formal diction may be utilized in business presentations.

Along the same lines, slang terminology, idiomatic expressions, clichés, contractions and abbreviated words typically don’t come within formalized diction. In some instances, this way of speaking might include the use of only the third grammatical person, avoiding the use of the first person or second person &mash; which is to say, speakers and writers wouldn’t use “I” or “you” to contextualize ideas. The use of the present tense and avoiding the use of exclamation marks and other stylized punctuation are often considered elements of this type of diction, too.

Differences from Informal or Colloquial Diction

Informal diction is conversational and typically is used in everyday conversations and writing, such as when a person is writing to or having conversations with his or her family members or friends. It’s often employed in e-mails and informal correspondence, and is also important anytime a writer is trying to recreate a scene between two people in a believable way. Many dialogues and first-person narration uses less formal elements, even if overarching narration is more structured and stylized.

When It’s Used

Formal diction usually is reserved for more formal situations, such as business, educational or legal situations in which it is beneficial for a person to present his or her information or opinions in a professional and polished tone. It’s often considered highly academic, and those who use it the most effortlessly often have a lot of education and training. People often give lectures or speeches in this style, and most professional publications are written this way, too.

Teachers and professors commonly also require it for student assignments. To a certain extent this is to help prepare students for life in the professional world, but in many cases it’s also an exercise in control and intentionality in writing. It’s one thing to think through big ideas in a colloquial or informal fashion, but there is an important art to conveying arguments and hypotheses in a persuasive, succinct, and polished way. Diction usually works alongside things like organizational structure and effective outlining to achieve this goal.

Common Sociological Perceptions

People aren’t often used to hearing formal speech in informal settings, or vice versa. To some people, formal words and presentation in what’s otherwise a casual setting might seem arrogant, whereas others might see it as a sign of intelligence or sophistication. Conversely, the use of informal diction in formal settings might be seen as a sign of indifference, low class or poor education to some people, but a sign of being approachable, easygoing or relaxed to others. A lot depends on the context and the individual.

Formal diction training can help professionals improve their business communication skills.
Formal diction training can help professionals improve their business communication skills.

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