Formality in Language and Reports

Posted: February 29, 2012 in School papers, Technical Writing
Tags: , ,

This was a report I wrote for the class Special Documents last semester. The assignment was to write a formal report about reports. I chose to narrow my focus to formality in language, and how it is related to but separate from formality in report style. The point of the project was more to follow all the rules about creating a formal report according to a chosen style guide. I chose APA, since I wasn’t familiar with it before starting this program. Of course, I deleted much of the front material (title page, letter of transmission) for the blog post, and WordPress is not taking too kindly to all my formatting, but I thought you might like to read it for the content. (It was my final paper and I got a perfect score, so yay!)


Reports can be divided into formal and informal reports. The language used in these reports can likewise be divided into formal and informal language. This paper attempts to clarify that while informal language is usually used in informal reports, and formal language is usually used in formal reports, formality in language does not define the formality of the report. Language tone and report style can be considered separately, and on rare occasion, even mismatched.  Formality and informality in language are defined, as are formality and informality in reporting. Reasons are given as to why formality usually corresponds to report type. Finally, suggestions are given for occasions when formal language might be considered in an informal report, and informal language in a formal report.

Keywords: formal report, informal report

Formality in Language and Reports

A large portion of technical and professional writing is given over to the writing of reports. Although there are many kinds of reports, each with its own purpose and context, all can generally be divided up into formal and informal reports. Which of these two genres is at play depends largely on the structure of the report, but also on the language. There is not only a concept of formal and informal reporting in business, but also of formal and informal tone. While each is tone is normally assumed to be paired with its counterpart, structure and language are two different issues that can be examined independently.

Formality in Language

      Tone of language has to do with what words and grammar structures are selected for the report. These words are selected, either consciously or unconsciously, to make the report seem polished and professional, or simple and direct.

Informal tone can range from familiar to mildly casual. While the concept of “informal tone” encompasses slang, street talk, and even politically incorrect terms, in the field of business it is usually more a matter of minor word choices. Informal tone favors active verbs, rather than passive. For example, “Ms. Kiehl found the report on the coffee table” would be used, rather than “the report was found on the coffee table by Ms. Kiehl.” Informal tone welcomes the use of personal pronouns, like I and you. “I found the report on your desk” is acceptable when informal tone is being used.

Formal language, on the other hand, has a more limited spectrum. While some professional jargon may be included, depending on the audience, there is no room for slang and conversational voice. Here, the passive voice is favored, and personal pronouns are to be avoided. “I found the report on your desk” would have to be converted to, “The report was found by (author) on the desk of (recipient).”

Formality in Reports

      Formal and informal tone is one of the variables that make up formal and informal reports. A person who never reads or writes reports might assume that it is the only variable, but this is very far from the truth. Most of what defines the formality of a report has to do with the structure.

An informal report is structured very simply, often as a memo. It usually has an introduction, but that is its only feature outside the body of the report (with the possible exception of appendices, which may be included when necessary). They are usually intended for an audience within the organization, although anyone who has seen news reports of scandalous leaked memos or emails knows that they can reach beyond their intended circle.

A formal report contains what is called by the Handbook of Technical Writing (Alred, Brusaw, Oliu) “front matter, body, and back matter,” each of which contains some of several features (p. 195). “Front matter” may include title page, abstract, table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, foreword, preface, and list of abbreviations and signals. The body may include the executive summary, introduction, text and headings, conclusions, recommendations, explanatory notes, and references/works cited. The “back matter” may contain appendices, bibliography, glossary, and index (p. 196). Note the inclusion of “introduction” and “conclusions” in the body section, and not even at the beginning and end (respectively) of the body section. This goes against the expectation of those whose writing education stopped at the five-paragraph essay.

Why Formality in Language should correspond with Formality in Report Style

     Having shown that formality in tone and format are two different things, are they always mutually inclusive? Should they be? Does an informal report need to be written with informal language? Does formal language belong in a formal report exclusively? What happens when they are mismatched?

An informal report can easily contain formal language. However, informal reports are generally read quickly, rather than studied in-depth like a formal report would be. Using formal language can slow down the comprehension process, especially when it is not expected. An executive expecting to be able to glance over a memo and understand the situation might be annoyed at having to decipher unnecessarily formal language. Formal writing can add a layer of complexity that is usually unnecessary at the memo level, which can cause readers to expend extra time and concentration on the report, or give up on reading it at all.

Likewise, informal language can be inserted into a formal report, but not without consequences. Informal language can cause the report to be taken less seriously. It can lend an air of unprofessionalism to the project, which can affect the amount of support or priority it gets from your colleagues. As formal reports are often available outside the company at which they were written, this unprofessional aura can reflect poorly on your company. Additionally, a style that lands very far on the informal end of the tonal spectrum can often contain careless language that might offend some, which can lead to grave problems both in and outside of the company.

Possible Exceptions

      The reasons why formality and informality remain segregated are understandable. But are there ever times when they should mix? Are there times when formal language can be used in an informal report, and vice versa?

A formal tone in an informal paper is often an inconvenience. However, there are times when it might be helpful. If the writer is especially trying to seem more competent, educated, or even just a better writer (for example, when vying for a position on a writing project), adding a more formal color to the language can help characterize the writer in these ways. An informal report on a serious matter might benefit from formal language to remind the audience of the gravity of the issue. It must be stated that readability be considered first, however, and decisions to change the tone of the report should not interfere with this priority.

An informal tone is usually not polished enough for a formal report. Yet it should be considered that informal language causes the reader to feel more empathy and trust towards the writer. It is easier for the reader to see someone who writes as they talk as a human being. Formality can lead to trust because of its precision, but informality lead to trust because of its humanity. Informal language is also easier for most people to read, ensuring that the paper is properly understood; indeed, that it is read at all. Audience is the greatest consideration in the prospect of deformalizing the language of a formal report. The writer must consider not only the primary audience, but also everyone who will come into contact with the paper. What might be acceptable to the primary recipient might be taken out of context by other readers, casting a bad impression of the writer, the project, or the company as a whole.


      Formality in language is usually matched to formality in report style for many reasons, including audience, context, and purpose. Nonetheless, it should be understood by writers that formality and language and formality in reporting are separate issues, and can be considered separately, although normally used together. Although these styles can be mixed, the decision to do so must be made under careful consideration.

List of Sources

Alred, Gerald J., Brusaw, Charles T., & Oliu, Walter E. (2009).  Handbook of Technical Writing (9th ed.).  New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Formal versus informal language. Language of Report Writing.  (2005.) Retrieved December 10, 2011, from

Shook, R.  Types of Reports [Class handout, ENGL 6470, R. Shook, Utah State University, 2011].

  1. OK, I give up on making this maintain any sort of consistent indentation. Nobody cares. Even though that was kind of the point of the assignment. WordPress, you are on my *expletive* list today.

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