Definition of Formal Language in 2017 – LearnMate

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VCE English Language – The Very Definition of Formal Language

I am constantly amazed by how many students complete their English Language SAC(s) on formal language (Unit 3 AOS 2) and still can’t articulately define what formal language actually means. Personally, I think this is where many schools fail in expressing this definition to students. So hopefully today I can demystify this for you.


  • Formal language is language (lexemes, syntactic structures, semantic features etc.) that have the following features:

    • It’s generally less ambiguous (i.e. clearer)
    • It’s generally more cohesive (glued together better)
    • More explicit
    • Often reinforces social distance and relationship hierarchies
    • Promotes a user’s authority and expertise (i.e. think of jargon)
    • It clarifies, manipulates or even obfuscates (confuses)
    • It can negotiate social taboos, that is it can be used to avoid offending certain groups in society.
  • A formal language can be used in many contexts to serve the following main functions:
    • To inform
    • To instruct
    • To celebrate
    • To commemorate

You’ll often find that formal language is used mainly in written texts to be clear (i.e. less ambiguous) or, on the other end of the spectrum, to obfuscate or manipulate (i.e. confuse). Make sure you identify this correctly in any formal piece you’re given.

Obfuscation & Manipulation


Did you know that despite being clear, formal language can also be used to deceive, manipulate and obfuscate!?

“You have Adblock enabled. Adblock has been known to cause issues with site functionality. If you are experiencing any difficulties, please try disabling Adblock.”

In this example above, as you can see, the lexeme ‘functionality’ is a nominalisation. In this case, it represents an abstract idea – one that we can’t put in concrete terms. To put this into context, ‘functionality’ could be ambiguous on the site; on this site, they make money through ads and so by disabling Adblock, the ads are not shown to the audience, and so the site doesn’t make money. Rather than say that, they would rather say it affects your view of the site – when in actuality it doesn’t. So, through the use of a nominalisation, they can help persuade you to accept their viewpoint as opposed to the viewpoint of making money through advertising.

In addition, syntactic nominalisations in formal language also serve the profound ability to impede clear thinking and prevent unambiguity. For example, in the Qantas Customer Charter document, the author makes use of bureaucratese in order to minimise clear thinking. This can be seen in the sentence “We aim to minimise the environmental impact of our operations and have targets and commitments to guide our performance”. In this example, the author uses five nominalisations, which according to Henry Hitchings of the New York Times in 2013 “[they] reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction and as such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business”.

I’d also recommend you see an article here by Richard Denniss on ‘Econobabble’ – obfuscation-plain-english-clarifies-our-policy-choices-20160212-gmsn6x.html

“Unfortunately, the primary role of economics in Australian political debate has become the narrowing of the choices we face and scaring the public into doing things we don’t want to do. You know the stuff: if we don’t cut the company tax rate we will become “uncompetitive“; if we don’t cut the top tax rate then rich people will have no “incentive” to work hard; and if we don’t cut the meagre welfare benefits of the poor then the budget will become “unsustainable”. These are also examples of ‘public language’.

Before your first formal language SAC, I would recommend you create a list of these on your computer with definition and examples. Always remember that state WHY this formal feature has been used in a given context! For example, nominalisation may be used to be unclear and represent an abstract idea – or deflect blame from a subject. 

Note: this is just one part of the formal language!

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Definition of Formal Language in 2017 – LearnMate

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