Manuscript Preparation, Copyediting, and Proofreading

Q. Throughout CMOS, as well as in Merriam-Webster, I see that some guidelines or spellings apply to “formal” writing and others to “informal” writing. How do you define formal and informal writing?

A. A writer’s choices determine whether a document is formal or informal. The use of slang, abbreviations, nonstandard grammar, lots of exclamation points, and a chatty tone are marks of informality. Passive verbs, big words, antiquated expressions, and correct or even stilted grammar signal formality. Most of us are comfortable somewhere in between. Some examples:

  • Usually formal: dissertations, grant proposals, term papers, legal documents, job applications, financial reports, wedding invitations
  • Usually informal: texts, grocery lists, personal letters and emails, personal blog posts
  • Formal or informal: books, newspaper articles, professional blog posts, work emails and letters, advertisements