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Levels of Formality

Levels of formality are a set of established conventions where social rules apply

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Levels of Formality

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Levels of formality are a set of established conventions where social rules apply.

Depending on the social circumstances, either formal or informal behaviour is appropriate. We adhere to specific social rules that are a reflection of our cultural norms. Formality can be used as a tool to help us fit into the different environments we occupy in society - our family, our circle of friends, school, the workplace, etc. Different levels of formality are acceptable in each different environment. The levels of formality guide our behaviour and communication patterns in the different social environments and situations we occupy. To put it simply, levels of formality help us to interact with each other in the way that is expected of us in specific circumstances.

Understanding the levels of formality can help you in different parts of your life.

Social situations: Think about the language you use when you're talking to your friends versus the way you talk to your teachers. Levels of formality differ depending on the social context.

Think about academic life. Some academic settings require specialised and professional language connected to the specific academic fields. This requirement impacts the levels of formality in the language that is used in these environments.

Levels of Formality, Formal-informal, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Formal vs informal.

What are the five levels of formality?

The five levels (or registers) of formality are:

  • Intimate
  • Casual
  • Consultative
  • Formal
  • Frozen

These registers also represent the different levels of language expression.

The five levels of formality were identified by American linguist Martin Joos in 1962.

Let's take a look at this graph - the higher the line goes, the more formal the register:

Levels of Formality, Graph StudySmarter OriginalFig. 2 - Graphing the levels of formality.

Now, let's explore each level of formality in more detail!

The intimate level of formality

The intimate level of formality is used in an informal setting, usually among family members, close friends, and lovers.

Intimate language can be quite simple, it can include slang and colloquialisms and it doesn't necessarily adhere to conventional grammatical norms. That's why, as fitting as it may be in an informal setting, it won't be appropriate in a public, academic or professional context.

In literature, the intimate level is usually used when the author wants the reader to relate to what is described in the book.

Can you guess the relationship of the participants in the conversation below?

A: Honey, did you get the Christmas tree?

B: Yep, I'm bringing it home!

A: Fantastic! Thank you! I'll start making dinner.

B: I'll help you when I get home. I'm just getting on the bus now. Do you need me to get anything else from the shop?

A: Nah, I think we're all good for pasta night. Jenny is so excited to decorate!

B: Give her a kiss from me! See you soon, darling!

A: Can't wait to see you and the tree!

A and B are spouses. Note that the intimate language A and B use to communicate is ideal for their situation - a married couple. However, the same register (the use of words such as 'yep', 'nah', 'darling') would be unsuitable for a more formal or professional setting.

The casual level of formality

The casual level of formality also occurs in an informal environment but is not as personal as the intimate level. The casual register is frequently used among friends and acquaintances, such as classmates and colleagues.

Casual language is informal and can include slang and colloquialisms. Note that both friendly and hostile conversations can be in the casual register.

Consider this example of the casual level of formality, a conversation between classmates:

A: Did you do the English Lit homework?

B: Sure! Did you?

A: Yes but I'm not sure how well I did it exactly. I don't know about you but I find it so difficult to understand Shakespeare's language.

B: Yeah ... I get that. You should try using this online dictionary, it really helped me!

You may notice that although the conversation is casual, some distance can be felt between A and B. It wouldn't be there if they were closer friends and they were using the intimate register. If they were using the intimate level, maybe they would have nicknames for each other, and they would make a plan to see each other after school.

This example also shows that the casual level of formality wouldn't fit a professional setting - informal words and phrases such as 'English Lit' and 'yeah' are not appropriate.

Consultative level of formality

The consultative level of formality is used in formal, professional, and academic settings. The consultative register usually occurs in conversations among colleagues, teachers and students, and employers and employees.

Conversations in the consultative level of formality usually require the participants to address each other by their respective titles and honorifics ('sir', 'madam', 'doctor', and the like). Consultative language can involve a specific jargon or knowledge connected to the professional context and participants involved.

Take a look at this example of the consultative level of formality - a conversation between a teacher and a student.

Teacher: Good morning, John.

Student: Good morning, Miss Nightingale.

Teacher: I've reviewed your homework and I have to say it's excellent work. Well done!

Student: Thank you, miss.

Teacher: Do you have any questions at all?

Student: Yes. The only thing I didn't understand is what Shakespeare means by 'the dickens'.

Teacher: 'Dickens' in Shakespeare's language is, of course, not the 19th-century author Dickens. This is a euphemism for 'devil'.

Student: Thank you, miss! Now it makes sense.

Note that the student speaks respectfully to the teacher and addresses her as 'miss'. The consultative register fits this context perfectly, but it wouldn't fit a more intimate or casual setting.

Formal level of formality

The formal level of formality refers to professional and academic environments. It is commonly used in lectures, speeches, text analysis, and documents.

In the formal register, there is usually no interaction between the speaker and the audience. It includes academic and professional language, follows grammatical conventions and involves more complex language. The formal level of formality usually doesn't express personal opinions or emotions, nor does it require an emotional connection between speaker and audience.

Let's have a look at this example of the formal level of formality - a graduation ceremony speech.

It is my great honour and pleasure to welcome this inspiring student body. Parents and lecturers, you should be proud. Graduates, you are knowledgeable. You are resilient. You are the future. You are the class of 2016.

Bear in mind that a speech is not a conversation - the formal register here is used with the intention of delivering and not necessarily receiving a verbal reaction. The formal level, therefore, does not apply to the same contexts as the intimate or casual registers and is not appropriate for friendly conversation.

(Note that conversations in the formal register can occur between colleagues.)

Frozen level of formality

The frozen level of formality is the most formal. It is called frozen for a reason - it uses static language that doesn't change. The frozen register consists of set phrases and relies on conventional grammar structures. It usually occurs in formal settings, such as weddings and religious ceremonies, as well as in safety briefings.

Similarly to the formal level, the frozen level does not allow interaction between the speaker (or author) and the audience. Since there is no feedback in the frozen register, this puts pressure on the speaker to engage the audience and to present themselves in the appropriate manner.

Consider this example of the frozen level of formality - a pre-flight safety briefing.

To fasten your seat belt insert the metal end into the buckle. To secure, pull the end of the strap underneath, and to open lift the buckle cover. In the event of sudden loss of cabin pressure, individual oxygen masks will automatically drop from the panel above your head.

This briefing is an example of the frozen level of formality because it follows specific conventions, is familiar, and doesn't change.

What happened to 'thou'?

Does the word 'thou' sound familiar to you? You've probably encountered it in the works of Shakespeare and other authors of the past. Back then, people distinguished between a formal and informal register.

The formal register was the word we still use - 'you'. The informal one was 'thou'.

English has since lost one register, 'thou', leaving 'you' as the sole form of address in both formal and informal situations.

Other modern languages, such as French and Bulgarian, still have two distinct forms. In French the formal is 'vous', while the informal is 'tu', while in Bulgarian the formal is 'vie' and the informal is 'ti'.

Let's take a look at these examples from Shakespeare's tragedies Hamlet (1611) and Richard II (1595) that show us the difference between 'you' and 'thou'. 'If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for

'If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for

thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,

thou shalt not escape calumny.'

In this excerpt from Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet, the title character Hamlet is speaking to Ophelia, a young woman he has courted, in the informal register, using 'thou'.

'My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine. You may my glories and my state depose, but not my griefs; still am I king of those.'

In this example from Act 4, Scene 1 of Richard II, King Richard is surrendering to Bolingbroke, by addressing him with the formal 'you'.

Finding the right register

When speaking or writing you can move from one level of formality to another. It's important that you find the right way to do that. You need to be aware of which is the best register to use in each specific context. Finding the right register can be tricky. If you use a specific level of formality inappropriately you risk being misunderstood.

For example, using the casual level of formality in a formal environment or vice versa could lead to an uncomfortable situation. Being aware of the differences of the various registers of formality, and knowing when and where it's appropriate to use them, will help you use language in the best way possible to deliver your messages.

Suppose a person uses a formal tone at a dinner table or with an audience that requires a more casual level of communication. In that case, the risk of being misunderstood, or not understood at all, is high. Knowing the difference and importance of the various levels of formality will allow you to recognise situations, fit in better in society, and use the right voice for your audiences.

Levels of Formality - Key takeaways

  • Formality helps us integrate ourselves into society, whether at school, with family, or in the workplace. Each social context and setting requires a different level of formality.
  • There are five levels (or registers) of formality: Intimate, Casual, Formal, Frozen, and Consultative. Each of them is characterised by a different register of the English language and is suitable in different social contexts.
  • The English language doesn't have a pronoun that differs the formal from the informal register. We dropped the informal 'thou' with time, leaving only the formal register, i.e., 'you'.
  • Knowing the differences between the levels of formality will allow you to express yourself appropriately in different environments.

Frequently Asked Questions about Levels of Formality

The levels of formality apply to writing as well as to spoken conversation. For example, if an author wants the readers to relate to what is described in their book, they would use the intimate level of formality. What is more, academic writing involves specific language, hence it uses the formal level of formality.

Levels of formality are a set of established conventions where social rules apply. 

Depending on the social circumstances, either formal or informal behaviour is appropriate. The levels of formality guide our behaviour and communication patterns in the different social environments and situations we occupy.


The five levels (or registers) of formality are: Intimate. Casual, Consultative, Formal, and Frozen.

You need to be aware of which is the best level of formality to use in each specific context. Being aware of the differences of the various registers of formality, and knowing when and where it's appropriate to use them, will help you use language in the best way possible to deliver your messages.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

 True or false?Colloquial language is considered to be a literary technique.

True or false?Colloquial language is an efficient way of revealing more about a character.

What is the formal equivalent of the word `` explain ''?

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