Definition of formal in English:



  • 1Done in accordance with rules of convention or etiquette; suitable for or constituting an official or important situation or occasion.

    ‘a formal dinner party’
    • ‘If you need formal wear for several occasions, be sure to pack it properly to avoid wrinkles.’
    • ‘In short, the system may have been appropriate for state banquets and other formal occasions, when making an impression of wealth and power was the purpose, but it was inappropriate for other purposes.’
    • ‘Casual wear has replaced formal clothes for most occasions.’
    • ‘Why not Nashville or Memphis or better yet, some place where fringe doesn't constitute formal wear?’
    • ‘Mark mentally brushed up on the formal dinner etiquette he had learned at the various classes his parents had forced him to go to.’
    • ‘Food servers appeared dressed in white uniforms for the formal occasion.’
    • ‘The next stage was to have short curly hair kept back off the face as in the photo of Josie and a friend dressed for a formal occasion.’
    • ‘We had decided, a couple of weeks ago, to make the night a formal dress occasion - as it's normally more fun if you've made a bit of an effort.’
    • ‘Taking the place of the wrestler, the artist meditates with eyes closed, dressed in the traditional clothing Japanese men wear for formal occasions.’
    • ‘Also, don't forget to dress accordingly for a formal interview.’
    • ‘The tunic has been a common element since the early 19th century, but while still worn on formal occasions and by senior officers, it has been phased out over the past decade.’
    • ‘Most designs are suitable for formal occasions as well as informal outings and parties.’
    • ‘I just feel that this is one of those formal occasions that gets big headlines because it's a formal occasion and not because it really matters.’
    • ‘There were about 20 of them, including some very small children, a few women, but mostly men, and they were all dressed as if for a formal occasion.’
    • ‘You would think that after all these years of preparation, I'd be able to at least dress myself appropriately for formal occasions, right?’
    • ‘While dinner etiquette was never formal, a firm routine had been established for following dinner.’
    • ‘He nudged her playfully and she launched into a cutesy story about how his hair is always sticking up and she can't get him to dress appropriately for formal occasions.’
    • ‘Everyone looked so well and the formal dress made this special occasion a night to remember.’
    • ‘But formal occasions begin and end with the national anthem.’
    • ‘Moving onto more formal occasions, we have these two dresses that are ready for both work and party.’
    ceremonial, ceremonious, ritualistic, ritual, conventional, traditional, orthodox, prescribed, fixed, set
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    1. 1.1 (of a person or their manner) prim or stiff.
      • ‘Whoever said that Germans were a formal people?’
      • ‘Even if someone was formal with him, they would have to be familiar with biochemical jargon and terminology, or Edward would act condescendingly to them.’
      • ‘I had to laugh, he was so formal, but I took the arm he offered.’
      • ‘For all the mystery surrounding him, he had a very formal personality, especially in the presence of his colleagues and superiors.’
      • ‘But he was obsessively formal and had about as much liveliness as a salted cod, and Bahzell simply couldn't warm to him as he had to Charrow or Sir Terrian.’
      • ‘A ponderous and formal man, he succeeded Walpole as first minister in 1742, but old, unwell, and with little taste for leadership, he merely presided for a year until his death.’
      • ‘When I go to a meeting, I have to decide ahead of time what to bring, and I'm never sure about the weather or how formal people will be.’
      • ‘An austere and formal man, his affection for his wife and seven living children (three died in childbirth and one drowned at the age of 10) was minimal.’
      • ‘Don't tell me I'm not formal enough for whatever this is.’
      • ‘They're quite formal and arch so they go against my grain.’
      • ‘How did a formal woman end up with her for a daughter?’
      • ‘Now he was formal and unreadable, the commander, once more.’
      • ‘We were very formal with each other but it got to the stage where I even took my dad round to see her.’
      • ‘They were excessively formal when speaking to each other, they spent no more time than they had to with each other, and even seemed to have staked out territories in and around the palace.’
      • ‘Even the closest personal relationships with men were more formal and task-oriented than those with women, and proceeded along hierarchical lines.’
      • ‘And if I ever see him in passing, I'll treat him in a strictly formal manner.’
      • ‘He was more formal, stuck to facts and figures, for the most part, as is his habit, but they're important facts and figures.’
      • ‘They are greeted in a traditional and formal manner by the people of Parihaka.’
      • ‘In my experience as an architect, a house in which every space is designed for everyday living is far more satisfying than one with unused formal spaces for formal guests who never show up.’
      • ‘I am a moderately formal person who works as an art educator, and I am a Virgo.’
      aloof, reserved, remote, detached, unapproachable, stand-offish, keeping people at arm's length
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    2. 1.2 Of or denoting a style of writing or public speaking characterized by more elaborate grammatical structures and more conservative and technical vocabulary.
      • ‘Here are a few of the letters, interesting to modern readers for their content and the formal style of writing.’
      • ‘You have a definite formal vocabulary that you carry from film to film.’
      • ‘Other corpora, such as the North American News Text Corpus, are bigger, but contain only formal writing and speech.’
      • ‘Filipinos generally speak the way they write, in a formal style based on Victorian prose models.’
      • ‘But I don't think so: I think he just thinks it's a more archaic, formal or quaint style of speaking than we use nowadays.’
      • ‘Eventually she achieved an almost purely formal vocabulary using elements drawn from everyday life.’
      • ‘The writing is pathetic, but there is simply nothing wrong with its grammar or the formal aspects of its style.’
      • ‘I haven't had time to look at any other Roosevelt speeches to see if this was a consistent property of his formal style.’
      • ‘It was written by her husband, yet its style was rigidly formal, consistently using her surname alone.’
      • ‘In fact, in the context of American journalism, they are seen as using a formal, conservative, and prestigious style.’
      • ‘Her writing style was more formal than that of her peers.’
      • ‘This is why communities of practice adopt formal vocabularies, so that ambiguity can be reduced and clarity improved.’
      • ‘Authors Courter and Marquis wrote the book using a fairly friendly and slightly formal style.’
      • ‘The highlighted words and phrases are ones that will not be used in formal writing and they even contain grammar mistakes.’
      • ‘The latter is normal Standard English, acceptable either spoken or written, in either informal or formal style.’
      • ‘Such writings were highly formal exercises in style and rhetoric, often delighting in dialectically arguing for and against a particular topic.’
      • ‘New variants often appear first in casual speech, while older ones remain in more emphatic formal styles.’
      • ‘The major changes were from features of spoken English to those more typical of formal writing, both in surface detail and in more fundamental characteristics.’
      • ‘This makes the diction simple and easy to understand with humorous differences between this writing style and other more formal ones.’
      • ‘The techniques, formal vocabulary and imagination that this book highlights leave us eager to learn much more.’
      literary, scholarly, learned, intellectual, erudite, bookish, highbrow, academic, cultivated
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    3. 1.3 (especially of a house or garden) arranged in a regular, classical, and symmetrical manner.
      • ‘Beyond the main building are a series of 17 formal exhibition gardens with rectangular flower beds edged in boxwood, one of the oldest features of the garden.’
      • ‘Carefully planted in extremely diverse sections, there were formal gardens, as well as fruit groves of mangoes, guavas and citrus trees.’
      • ‘Unlike a more rigid formal garden, the resulting prairie component ‘is not at all a static environment,’ according to Hyams.’
      • ‘Near the house there are formal terraces which were made in the 19th century and inspired by those at the Villa Aloupka on the shores of the Black Sea.’
      • ‘But my personal favourite was Ballyvolane, a six bedroomed Italianate house with a lovely formal walled garden with dovecote behind, and its own fishing lakes in front.’
      • ‘The garden to the rear of the house is more formal.’
      • ‘The formal gardens include collections of roses, rhododendrons and magnolias.’
      • ‘Characterized by spatial fluidity and interpenetration, the house has a rich formal complexity and intimacy.’
      • ‘The form of that building is unknown but a drawing which survives in the Headfort archive suggests a large house surrounded by formal gardens designed by Robert Stevenson.’
      • ‘To the front of the house, there is a formal garden enclosed by boxwood hedging while beyond there is a woodland garden and a paddock bisected by the Corrie Burn.’
      • ‘Gone are the stuccoed Classical and mock Egyptian facades that addressed the formal gardens.’
      • ‘We briefly stopped at his home, the Eastman House, an elegant 50-room Colonial Revival Mansion surrounded by formal gardens.’
      • ‘Inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, classic rooms have clean, simple lines and formal symmetry.’
      • ‘Dawa and Wheatcroft have created a lovely, peaceful garden, with formal areas in front of the house.’
      • ‘The exhibition, in storyboard form, explores the history of the Whitton Dean estate, recreating the house and what was once the most exquisite formal garden in the Twickenham area.’
      • ‘To tempt the tourists in, Ford Park's house, its formal gardens and grounds would be restored to their former glory while an access-route to the monument on Hoad Hill from the park would be reopened.’
      • ‘There is a productive kitchen garden, a quarry garden, a waterfowl garden and a formal area in front of the house appropriately named the Best Garden.’
      • ‘A scattering of red pillows with white roses on the couch alludes to the formal gardens just beyond the window, while keeping Paul's favorite color in the mix.’
      • ‘The project has included the replanting of the formal garden in front of the house using boxwood, roses, catmint, lavender and clematis.’
      • ‘If you have a formal garden, in a classic or minimalist style, then you can skip the rest of this article because rustic furniture would look out of place in your back yard.’
  • 2Officially sanctioned or recognized.

    ‘a formal complaint’
    • ‘Of course wars still took place, but most often without the formal sanction of the UN Security Council.’
    • ‘For years, these students were permitted to study without a formal student visa, which requires full-time study and proof of financial assets.’
    • ‘The provision of employment for inmates by the Department does not constitute a formal employment relationship.’
    • ‘He said he plans to lodge a formal complaint with the legal department of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.’
    • ‘However, as professional and amateur historians we could very much utilize a formal definition of what constitutes an orphaned work.’
    • ‘It said that in the absence of any formal complaint even the authorities were not in a position to launch an investigation.’
    • ‘Poor communication and failure to take account of the patient's perspective are at the heart of most formal complaints and legal actions.’
    • ‘If bitten, victims are urged to make a formal complaint to the authorities and the owners could face stiff penalties.’
    • ‘The Internet and the World Wide Web have provided cultural studies a clear shift towards a production ethos that has altered the formal boundaries of what constitutes production.’
    • ‘AIB said it could not comment on individual cases, but added that all loans were sanctioned via formal written documentation.’
    • ‘However, it must be remembered that it is for a jury to decide whether an offence has been committed on the facts, and previous decisions do not constitute any sort of formal precedent.’
    • ‘He said that the audits were not documented because no formal complaint was brought against her.’
    • ‘He liked singing and dancing with the primary school art group but he was not a formal member.’
    • ‘That is issued pursuant to the 1951 Convention but only once formal refugee status is accorded.’
    • ‘Although the early revision cases were not suitable for formal testing, they were recorded as treatment failures and included as poor results.’
    • ‘Even if they gave birth, they were not thought of as members of the formal family - their status was just a little higher than that of the maids.’
    • ‘A person could only enter the premises by becoming a formal member of the club.’
    • ‘But her acting and, of course, dancing talents have actually not got her the deserving formal recognition in the name of awards.’
    • ‘We want credentials and acknowledgement in some officially recognized, formal way for the work we have invented.’
    • ‘But how could the simple formal recognition of property be the solution for the development of Third World and former communist nations?’
    official, legal, authorized, approved, validated, certified, endorsed, documented, sanctioned, licensed, recognized, authoritative, accepted, verified, legitimate, lawful, valid, bona fide, proper, prescribed, pro forma
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    1. 2.1 Having a conventionally recognized form, structure, or set of rules.
      ‘he had little formal education’
      • ‘Is there some formal expression of etiquette that is appropriate here?’
      • ‘From that initial drawing, a more formal design for the structure evolved.’
      • ‘Do you make the distinction between a formal hypnotic state and the everyday trance state?’
      • ‘I have no real formal music training, like every other punk who gets a keyboard for his bar mitzvah.’
      • ‘That is why the development of formal education designed for blind people is now facing great constraints.’
      • ‘By age 5, children become interested in formal games with rules or two or more sides, and explicit activities.’
      • ‘His first formal graphic design education was at a vocational school the year before he graduated high school.’
      • ‘By combining formal knowledge with real world experience and new ideas or perspectives, the construction of new knowledge occurs.’
      • ‘As a singer, did you have any formal training or did you just begin knowing that you wanted to sing?’
      • ‘Since I hadn't received a formal graphic design education, I did not have the rudimentary skills required to develop a mature design style.’
      • ‘Her idea was to connect formal, structured education with real-world learning opportunities.’
      • ‘Western schooling crowds out other forms of formal education like initiation rituals that were designed to bring an entire age group to the same level rather than to weed out students.’
      • ‘Additionally, the man himself is an inspiration due to his own lack of formal design education.’
      • ‘Traditionally, formal education was under the authority of the Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church.’
      • ‘I would look at him and feel really proud that we were going out, even though it never really felt like a formal boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.’
      • ‘Nowadays, however, more Tuareg recognize the importance of formal education.’
      • ‘Only recently have we seen large numbers of people come straight into Web design from formal education programs.’
      • ‘Some would say that the caliber of work we do demonstrates a formal education in Graphic Design.’
      • ‘Increasingly, however, companies are demanding some kind of formal education in interior design, whether it's an evening class programme or a three year degree.’
      • ‘Have you ever had any formal education in design or new media?’
      symmetrical, regular, orderly, arranged, methodical, systematic, in straight lines, regimented
      conventional, mainstream, rigid
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  • 3Of or concerned with outward form or appearance, especially as distinct from content or matter.

    ‘I don't know enough about art to appreciate the purely formal qualities’
    • ‘They are offered as commentary on the formal qualities of sculpture, but have been infused with just a little too much personality to mildly serve as object lessons.’
    • ‘Ostensibly, the title designates the thematic qualities of the sonnets, but it also announces their formal qualities as well.’
    • ‘It was copied by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Sandrart, all of whom responded to the painting as an image of the noble virtuoso as well as to its formal distinction.’
    • ‘These sketches stick in the mind not just because of their content but because of their formal qualities.’
    • ‘Now I love formalism, if it reaches sensible results, and if it rests on formal distinctions that make sense.’
    • ‘A viewer should expect that a dance will undergo some type of development of its formal components and thematic content.’
    • ‘What is most important to Adamu is the nature of the subject, the significance of the stories told in the paintings, not the painting's formal qualities.’
    • ‘There are no distinct actors to give it formal content.’
    • ‘El Greco began as an icon painter in Crete, and certain formal qualities of Byzantine icons - such as their elongation of the figure - never left his art.’
    • ‘The young contemporary artists deal more with the whole image than its parts or else they respond abstractly to the general feeling or to the prints' formal qualities.’
    • ‘That work has no content beyond its formal execution of idea.’
    • ‘The large pieces, often 40 inches high, with their simplified color schemes draw more attention to their formal qualities.’
    • ‘But there are difficult questions to be asked as to how one might distinguish innovation from formal novelty.’
    • ‘The pictorialist landscapes expressed the value of formal qualities that were anathema to establishment photographers.’
    • ‘Either way, the change itself is formal: purely formal change or the formal change of some content.’
    • ‘It is also vital to debate criteria of formal quality in art alongside conceptual rigor.’
    • ‘The rope pieces pursue more resolved compositions and traditional formal concerns.’
    • ‘Richards documents the many changes masks are undergoing, especially in their formal qualities.’
    • ‘Both the content and the formal layout of the inscriptions changed.’
    • ‘If the sketch was valued, it was not for its intrinsic formal qualities, but rather because it offered visible evidence of something conceived, but not yet realized.’
    1. 3.1 Having the form or appearance without the spirit.
      ‘his sacrifice will be more formal than real’
      • ‘From the perspective of the liturgy of the Church this understanding of spirit has created a very formal and lifeless kind of worship.’
      • ‘He claims that society must ensure both formal and real freedom.’
      • ‘Courtesy is the formal manifestation of the spirit of respect.’
      • ‘Genuine democracy presupposes that broad layers of the population can satisfy their elementary interests not only in a formal sense but in real life.’
    2. 3.2 Relating to linguistic or logical form as opposed to function or meaning.
      • ‘After all, we may know many things that have nothing to do with formal logical systems.’
      • ‘In the logical formal mode, proof is provided in linearly connected sentences composed of words that are carefully selected to convey unambiguous meaning.’
      • ‘In fact, the viewer should be able to inspect a visual representation and a traditional logical formal proof with the same rigor.’
      • ‘There have been a lot of ‘proofs’, some aided by kinds of formal or symbolic logic.’
      • ‘In a formal proof, all the intermediate logical steps are supplied.’
      • ‘It says that no consistent formal logical system can prove its own consistency.’
      • ‘The contradistinction of the two logics, formal logical and dialectical, is equally unjustified.’
      • ‘One can have rigorous, logically sound formal systems based on diagrams.’
      • ‘First, modern mathematical methods were to be represented in formal deductive systems.’
      • ‘These words which might be supposed to be vague in meaning in fact perform a very precise formal function.’
      • ‘A mathematical proof is a formal and logical line of reasoning that begins with a set of axioms and moves through logical steps to a conclusion.’


North American
  • 1An evening gown.

    • ‘It was Louis dressed in his formals and looking amazingly handsome.’
    • ‘She had a serious weakness for formals and so most of her parties involved dressing up.’
    • ‘She would do her hair up for fun sometimes, and trot around her apartment in evening formals for no reason at all.’
    • ‘Inside the elevator we were joined by two older ladies dressed in long formals.’
    • ‘Then came the era of ready-to-wear clothes and Raymonds ventured into Park Avenue and Parx and a whole range from formals to casuals, all for men.’
    • ‘For the formals as well as informals, Kutir creates the garments right from fabricating, dying, embroidery, stitching and assembling.’
    • ‘The next best way is to get yourself garbed in a mix of exciting casuals or formals that really help you breathe easy.’
    • ‘It has racks of formals, long ones, short ones, and at prices you won't believe.’
    • ‘Madhav, who has run the shop for 27 years, turns out formals, ‘party’ wear and election gear.’
    • ‘So folks, dress up in your formals, grab some bubbly and enjoy the mix of high culture and the glorious environment that is Opera at The Channon.’
    1. 1.1 An occasion on which evening dress is worn.
      • ‘Any parent who has a child in the latter years of high school is only too familiar with formals.’
      • ‘The Bosco Drama Group will also be holding a Summer School daily for two weeks during August and are also in the process of organising their annual formal which is planned for early October.’
      • ‘It was Friday, the day before the winter formal, and his tuxedo still wasn't ready.’
      • ‘I remember my mother wearing this dress when she attended a business formal with my dad.’
      • ‘When I had told him that I was going to be doing stats for the wrestling team, he just chuckled and mentioned something about me also wanting to get a date to the winter formal.’
      • ‘They both just said, ‘So, are you going to the formal with anyone yet?’’
      • ‘The 007 look-alike competition took place over the weekend with our youngsters embarking on a night to remember at the formal.’
      • ‘Everywhere she went, the girls talked of dresses, hair, make-up, and most of all, dates for the formal.’
      • ‘She looked absolutely beautiful, and it was more than the usual overly styled hair and huge puffy dress that girls usually wore to the spring formal.’
      • ‘Harry, Piper's brother, had left for college two years ago but had left me his tuxedo for formals, in the event that I ever attended one.’
      • ‘It seems the only things going on there anymore are Thursday night residence parties and high school formals.’
      • ‘Why couldn't he have just invited a different girl to the winter formal?’
      • ‘I went to the winter formal when I was a freshman.’
      • ‘So anyway, Kelly wants Kevin to ask her to the formal.’
      • ‘Our daughter has worked hard for this moment, tackling her studies with an intensity that can only come from trying to get everything done before the spring formal.’
      • ‘When students are in the twelfth grade they attend a senior school dance called the formal.’
      • ‘‘I didn't know there was a winter formal,’ Noella said, examining the sweater in the mirror.’
      • ‘He was my guide post for everything before the formal.’
      • ‘I went to my winter formal with a girl I liked and had no fun.’


Late Middle English: from Latin formalis, from forma ‘shape, mold’ (see form).