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Formal Language

Appropriate Language: Overview

When writing, it is very important to use language that fits your audience and matches purpose. Inappropriate language uses can damage your credibility, undermine your argument, or alienate your audience. This handout will cover some of the major issues with appropriate language use: levels of language formality, deceitful language and Euphemisms, slang and idiomatic expressions; using group-specific jargon; and biased/stereotypical language.

The following is a short overview of the different aspects of using appropriate language. Review the other sections of this handout for a more complete discussion.

  1. Levels of Formality: Writing in a style that your audience expects and that fits your purpose is key to successful writing.
  2. In-Group Jargon: Jargon refers to specialized language used by groups of like-minded individuals. Only use in-group jargon when you are writing for members of that group. You should never use jargon for a general audience without first explaining it.
  3. Slang and idiomatic expressions: Avoid using slang or idiomatic expressions in general academic writing.
  4. Deceitful language and Euphemisms: Avoid using euphemisms (words that veil the truth, such as "collateral damage" for the unintended destruction of civilians and their property) and other deceitful language.
  5. Biased language: Avoid using any biased language including language with a racial, ethnic, group, or gender bias or language that is stereotypical.
  6. The level of formality you write with should be determined by the expectations of your audience and your purpose. For example, if you are writing a cover letter for ajob application or a college academic essay, you would write in a formal style. If you are writing a letter to a friend, writing something personal, or even writing something for a humorous or special interest magazine when informal writing is expected, you would use a more informal style. Formality exists on a scale—in the example below, a letter of application to a known colleague can result in a semi-formal style.

    Here is an example:

    Formal (Written to an unknown audience): I am applying for the receptionist position advertised in the local paper. I am an excellent candidate for the job because of my significant secretarial experience, good language skills, and sense of organization.

    Semi-formal (Written to a well-known individual): I am applying for the receptionist position that is currently open in the company. As you are aware, I have worked as a temporary employee with your company in this position before. As such, I not only have experience and knowledge of this position, but also already understand the company's needs and requirements for this job.

    Informal (Incorrect): Hi! I read in the paper that ya'll were looking for a receptionist. I think that I am good for that job because I've done stuff like it in the past, am good with words, and am incredibly well organized.

    Group Jargon

    The term "jargon" refers to any in-group or specialized language used by small groups of like-minded individuals. This terminology is usually specialized to the function of the group, and will be used by and among group members as a sign of belonging, status, and for keeping out outsiders.

    For example, individuals who study linguistics will use words like quantifier, voiceless labiodental fricative, diglossia, intensifier, minimal pair and metonymy. To non-linguists, these words have different meanings or no meanings at all.

    When making the choice of what vocabulary to use, you should first and foremost consider the audience that you are addressing:

    If you are writing for a general audience (even an general academic audience) you should avoid using in-group jargon without explanations. Overloading your audience with words they do not understand will not help you achieve your purpose.

    For example, if you are writing a paper explaining concepts in linguistics to an audience of non-linguists, you might introduce and explain a few important terms. But you wouldn't use those terms without an explanation or in a way your audience wouldn't understand.

    If, however, you are writing to an in-group audience you will want to use group-specific jargon. Not using the jargon when it is expected by your audience can signal to the audience that you are not a member of that group or have not mastered the group's terminology. This will most likely damage your credibility and interfere with your purpose in writing.

    For example, if you are writing a conference paper for a group of linguists or a term paper for a college-level linguistics course, you should use in-group jargon to help show that you understand the concepts and can discuss them in ways other linguists can.

    Slang and Idiomatic Expressions

    You should avoid using slang (words like y'all, yinz, cool) or idiomatic expressions ("pull someone's leg", "spill the beans", and "something smells fishy") in formal academic writing. These words make your writing sound informal, and hence, less credible. Furthermore, for non-native speakers of English, these expressions may prove more difficult to understand because of their non-literal nature.

    Times do exist, however, when the use of slang and idiomatic expressions are appropriate. Think about who your audience is, what they expect, and how the use of these words may help or hinder your purpose. If you are writing a very informal or humorous piece, slang or idiomatic expressions may be appropriate.

    Deceitful Language and Euphemisms

    You should avoid using any language whose purpose is deceitful. Euphemisms are terms that attempt to cover up that which is wrong, unethical, taboo, or harsh.

    Here are some examples from the military:

    • Pacification = The act of forcefully exerting outside government over a previously autonomous people
    • Friendly Fire = Being shot at (unintentionally) by your own allies
    • Collateral Damage = Destruction of property and killing of innocent civilians during war efforts
    • Sunshine Units = A term for a power plant that is leaking radiation into the surrounding areas

    Complex or Confusing Language

    Language can also be deceitful if it is overly complex or confusing. Confusing language is deliberately created complex and is used to downplay the truth or to evade responsibility. Here is an example:

    The acquisition of pollution permits by individuals and corporations that produce toxins has now been allowed by the recently amended Clean Air Act of 1990. Institution of permits simplifies and clarifies obligations for business and industry, making environmental protections more accessible for these constituents. The government and the Environmental Protection Agency will be greatly assisted in their endeavors by monitoring the release of all substances and having the substances listed on one individual permit.

    Although this paragraph makes it seem like this facet of the Clean Air act is helping the environment, the EPA, and the federal government, in reality all it is doing is explaining the new permit system that allows permit holders to release pollutants into the environment.

    Group Terminology

    Depending on your purpose, however, some terms that may be considered euphemisms may be appropriate or even sanctioned by groups they affect. For example, it is more correct to say "persons with disabilities" or "differently-abled persons" than to call someone "handicapped" "crippled" or even "disabled." In these cases, it is important to use what is considered correct by the group in question.

    Avoid using language that is stereotypical or biased in any way. Biased language frequently occurs with gender, but can also offend groups of people based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, political interest, or race.

    Stereotyped Language

    Stereotyped language is any that assumes a stereotype about a group of people. For example, don't assume a common stereotype about blonde women:

    Incorrect: Although she was blonde, Mary was still intelligent.
    Revised: Mary was intelligent.

    Non-Sexist language

    Writing in a non-sexist, non-biased way is both ethically sound and effective. Non-sexist writing is necessary for most audiences; if you write in a sexist manner and alienate much of your audience from your discussion, your writing will be much less effective.

    The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) suggests the following guidelines:

    Generic Use

    Although MAN in its original sense carried the dual meaning of adult human and adult male, its meaning has come to be so closely identified with adult male that the generic use of MAN and other words with masculine markers should be avoided.

    • Original: mankind
    • Alternatives: humanity, people, human beings
    • Original:man's achievements
    • Alternative: human achievements
    • Original: man-made
    • Alternatives: synthetic, manufactured, machine-made
    • Original: the common man
    • Alternatives: the average person, ordinary people
    • Original: man the stockroom
    • Alternative: staff the stockroom
    • Original: nine man-hours
    • Alternative: nine staff-hours


    Avoid the use of MAN in occupational terms when persons holding the job could be either male or female.

    • Original: chairman
    • Alternatives: coordinator (of a committee or department), moderator (of a meeting), presiding officer, head, chair
    • Original: fireman
    • Alternative: firefighter
    • Original: mailman
    • Alternative: mail carrier
    • Original: steward and stewardess
    • Alternative: flight attendant
    • Original: policeman and policewoman
    • Alternative: police officer
    • Original: congressman
    • Alternative: congressional representative

    Historically, some jobs have been dominated by one gender or the other. This has lead to the tendency for a person of the opposite gender to be "marked" by adding a reference to gender. You should avoid marking the gender in this fashion in your writing.

    • Original: male nurse
    • Alternative: nurse
    • Original: woman doctor
    • Alternative: doctor
    • Because English has no generic singular—or common-sex—pronoun, we have used HE, HIS, and HIM in such expressions as "the student needs HIS pencil." When we constantly personify "the judge," "the critic," "the executive," "the author," and so forth, as male by using the pronoun HE, we are subtly conditioning ourselves against the idea of a female judge, critic, executive, or author. There are several alternative approaches for ending the exclusion of women that results from the pervasive use of masculine pronouns.

      Recast into the plural

      • Original: Give each student his paper as soon as he is finished.
      • Alternative: Give students their papers as soon as they are finished.

      Reword to eliminate gender problems.

      • Original: The average student is worried about his grade.
      • Alternative: The average student is worried about grades.

      Replace the masculine pronoun with ONE, YOU, or (sparingly) HE OR SHE, as appropriate.

      • Original: If the student was satisfied with his performance on the pretest, he took the post-test.
      • Alternative: A student who was satisfied with her or his performance on the pretest took the post-test.

      Alternate male and female examples and expressions. (Be careful not to confuse the reader.)

      • Original: Let each student participate. Has he had a chance to talk? Could he feel left out?
      • Alternative: Let each student participate. Has she had a chance to talk? Could he feel left out?

      Indefinite Pronouns

      Using the masculine pronouns to refer to an indefinite pronoun (everybody, everyone, anybody, anyone) also has the effect of excluding women. In all but strictly formal uses, plural pronouns have become acceptable substitutes for the masculine singular.

      • Original: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money tomorrow.
      • Alternative: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring their money tomorrow.

      An alternative to this is merely changing the sentence. English is very flexible, so there is little reason to "write yourself into a corner":

      • Original: Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money.
      • Alternative: People who want to go to the game should bring their money.