Defining formality: adapting to the abstract demands of academic discourse

Cassi L. Liardét*, Sharyn Black, Vani Sharren Bardetta

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Measures of formality have historically been linked to the spoken-written language continuum; however, modern communication increasingly employs the written mode using different degrees of informality (e.g., emails, text messages, etc.). While allowances are made for these varied genres and registers, the use of informal expression in the written mode often impacts the quality of academic discourse. The present study aims to map the linguistic features of formality to describe this elusive, often stylistically mapped objective. A corpus of one hundred forty student essays were analyzed and rated for formality by three English for Academic Purposes (EAP) instructors. Those texts consistently scored across all three raters as “high” or “low” formality were further analyzed for lexico-grammatical features (e.g., pronoun use, conjunctions, lexical density, etc.) to determine what linguistic features distinguish the different levels of formality. The analysis reveals the most significant contributor to the impression of informality in the learner texts is infelicitous clause-level grammar, followed by grammatical intricacy, informal lexis and human interaction. These descriptions expand current understandings of how formality is defined and the paper concludes with pedagogical recommendations for supporting students and professionals in their development of formal, academic discourse.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)146-158
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of English for Academic Purposes
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • formality
  • academic writing
  • English for academic purposes
  • grammatical metaphor


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