|The favor of a reply is requested.||The tone is formal.|
|Please let us know if you’re coming.||The tone is informal.|
Some situations call for a formal tone – dealing with the government, handling a legal issue, communicating with people you do not know well. Other situations require a lighter touch. People often ask me how to create a more formal or less formal tone. Three factors influence the formality of a piece of writing. You can use them to create the level of formality that is appropriate to your situation.
Using the Passive VoiceThe passive voice builds distance between you and your reader. It adds formality to your tone. Just a refresher: The ball was hit by the boy is passive. The boy hit the ball is active. The passive voice is always formed with a helping verb such as is, am, are, was, were, have, etc. For example, you could write:
- Documents were reviewed by the Chicago due diligence team.
- Prices are set by in-house sales representatives.
- The Chicago due diligence team reviewed the documents.
- In-house sales representatives set the prices.
Using Nouns Instead of Verbs
- Work will commence upon receipt of authorization.
- It is my belief that making the choice of Plan A would be to your benefit.
Verbs are the engines of language. Nouns do not move until they encounter verbs. Obviously, every sentence contains nouns as well as verbs. We aim to eliminate unnecessary nouns, which are nouns that could be rephrased as verbs. If you express your main message in stodgy, sludgy nouns, you slow it down; phrase it in verbs and your thoughts race straight into your reader’s mind. See the difference:
- We will begin to work as soon as you authorize us.
- I believe that choosing Plan A would benefit you.
Using Personal PronounsCompare these sentences:
- The firm requests that clients sign in upon arrival.
- Please sign in when you arrive.
Using first names always makes a document more informal; using titles like Ms and Mr makes your tone more formal.
Using a formal tone is neither good nor bad. Different situations demand different levels of formality. Only you can judge the degree of formality your situation requires. Being aware of the tools mentioned here can empower you to better control the formality of your writing.
Do not assume that writing more formally is always your best choice. You can be reasonably informal and still be appropriate in the business world. Formal writing comes with a cost: It is harder for your reader to understand. So use it when you need it, but don’t default to it. Most of your writing should be, in the words of the great Jacques Barzun, simple and direct.
©2016 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
Read Writamins on these topics:
Choosing the Right Word
Thoughts on Writing
Writing Within Organizations