English Language

Unit 3 AOS 2 - What exactly is formal language and what are its purposes?

by
Lisa Tran

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By now, most VCE English Language students would be starting Unit 3 AOS 2, which is on formal language and its purposes. I believe that most students will find this topic not too difficult as it is simply a lead on from informal language and therefore, as a student, you can contrast this to formal language.

To succeed in this AOS (area of study), I would recommend you first revise all of your metalinguistic terms from the VCE English Language Study Design. Knowing all of the content, in addition to the metalinguistic terms, is also an essential aspect of this AOS. Make sure you go through all the content in your textbook, and highlight all of the key terms and ideas needed. I also have an online course, which has a whole section dedicated to this AOS.

So, what exactly is formal language and what are its purposes?

Formal language is literally language (lexemes etc.) that has 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.

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.

This notion of obfuscation can be seen in syntactic structures, in particular in agentless passives. For example, politicians or businesspeople love to use these sentence structures to hide the truth (confuse): "A decision has been made to close the school down". Wait, who is closing the school down? In addition, nominalisations (verb to noun) can also serve the purpose of obfuscation. Recall that nominalisations represent an abstract idea and not a concrete object. For example, 'The destablisation of the economy caused adverse effects". In this example, 'destablisation' is an abstract idea; what exactly does this mean? Does this mean that businesses shut down? In this case, we're not entirely sure. Likewise, this sentence doesn't state WHO did this action, therefore removes blame entirely from an entity, therefore it is unclear.

This notion of unambiguity can also be seen in legal documents (i.e. terms and conditions). In order to protect a company's legal interests, it will often employ formal language in its legal documents so as to ensure unambiguity and the prevention of loopholes.

So what SAC formats would there be for formal language? Well, this depends entirely on your school. Your school may decide to implement short answer questions, an analytical commentary, an essay, or even a mixture of these SAC formats.

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