Definition of formal in US 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’
    • ‘You would think that after all these years of preparation, I'd be able to at least dress myself appropriately for formal occasions, right?’
    • ‘Mark mentally brushed up on the formal dinner etiquette he had learned at the various classes his parents had forced him to go to.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Also, don't forget to dress accordingly for a formal interview.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Why not Nashville or Memphis or better yet, some place where fringe doesn't constitute formal wear?’
    • ‘Everyone looked so well and the formal dress made this special occasion a night to remember.’
    • ‘Casual wear has replaced formal clothes for most occasions.’
    • ‘Food servers appeared dressed in white uniforms for the formal occasion.’
    • ‘If you need formal wear for several occasions, be sure to pack it properly to avoid wrinkles.’
    • ‘Moving onto more formal occasions, we have these two dresses that are ready for both work and party.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘While dinner etiquette was never formal, a firm routine had been established for following dinner.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Taking the place of the wrestler, the artist meditates with eyes closed, dressed in the traditional clothing Japanese men wear for formal occasions.’
    • ‘But formal occasions begin and end with the national anthem.’
    ceremonial, ceremonious, ritualistic, ritual, conventional, traditional, orthodox, prescribed, fixed, set
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1 (of a person or their manner) prim or stiff.
      • ‘Don't tell me I'm not formal enough for whatever this is.’
      • ‘Whoever said that Germans were a formal people?’
      • ‘For all the mystery surrounding him, he had a very formal personality, especially in the presence of his colleagues and superiors.’
      • ‘We were very formal with each other but it got to the stage where I even took my dad round to see her.’
      • ‘And if I ever see him in passing, I'll treat him in a strictly formal manner.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘How did a formal woman end up with her for a daughter?’
      • ‘Now he was formal and unreadable, the commander, once more.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Even the closest personal relationships with men were more formal and task-oriented than those with women, and proceeded along hierarchical lines.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘I am a moderately formal person who works as an art educator, and I am a Virgo.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘They are greeted in a traditional and formal manner by the people of Parihaka.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘He was more formal, stuck to facts and figures, for the most part, as is his habit, but they're important facts and figures.’
      • ‘I had to laugh, he was so formal, but I took the arm he offered.’
      • ‘They're quite formal and arch so they go against my grain.’
      aloof, reserved, remote, detached, unapproachable, stand-offish, keeping people at arm's length
      View synonyms
    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.
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘In fact, in the context of American journalism, they are seen as using a formal, conservative, and prestigious style.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Here are a few of the letters, interesting to modern readers for their content and the formal style of writing.’
      • ‘The highlighted words and phrases are ones that will not be used in formal writing and they even contain grammar mistakes.’
      • ‘The techniques, formal vocabulary and imagination that this book highlights leave us eager to learn much more.’
      • ‘It was written by her husband, yet its style was rigidly formal, consistently using her surname alone.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Eventually she achieved an almost purely formal vocabulary using elements drawn from everyday life.’
      • ‘New variants often appear first in casual speech, while older ones remain in more emphatic formal styles.’
      • ‘Authors Courter and Marquis wrote the book using a fairly friendly and slightly formal style.’
      • ‘This makes the diction simple and easy to understand with humorous differences between this writing style and other more formal ones.’
      • ‘I haven't had time to look at any other Roosevelt speeches to see if this was a consistent property of his formal style.’
      • ‘This is why communities of practice adopt formal vocabularies, so that ambiguity can be reduced and clarity improved.’
      • ‘The latter is normal Standard English, acceptable either spoken or written, in either informal or formal style.’
      • ‘The writing is pathetic, but there is simply nothing wrong with its grammar or the formal aspects of its style.’
      • ‘You have a definite formal vocabulary that you carry from film to film.’
      • ‘Her writing style was more formal than that of her peers.’
      • ‘Such writings were highly formal exercises in style and rhetoric, often delighting in dialectically arguing for and against a particular topic.’
      literary, scholarly, learned, intellectual, erudite, bookish, highbrow, academic, cultivated
      View synonyms
    3. 1.3 (especially of a house or garden) arranged in a regular, classical, and symmetrical manner.
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Unlike a more rigid formal garden, the resulting prairie component ‘is not at all a static environment,’ according to Hyams.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Dawa and Wheatcroft have created a lovely, peaceful garden, with formal areas in front of the house.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘The formal gardens include collections of roses, rhododendrons and magnolias.’
      • ‘We briefly stopped at his home, the Eastman House, an elegant 50-room Colonial Revival Mansion surrounded by formal gardens.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Gone are the stuccoed Classical and mock Egyptian facades that addressed the formal gardens.’
      • ‘Carefully planted in extremely diverse sections, there were formal gardens, as well as fruit groves of mangoes, guavas and citrus trees.’
      • ‘The garden to the rear of the house is more formal.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Characterized by spatial fluidity and interpenetration, the house has a rich formal complexity and intimacy.’
      • ‘Inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, classic rooms have clean, simple lines and formal symmetry.’
      • ‘The project has included the replanting of the formal garden in front of the house using boxwood, roses, catmint, lavender and clematis.’
      • ‘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.’
  • 2Officially sanctioned or recognized.

    ‘a formal complaint’
    • ‘He liked singing and dancing with the primary school art group but he was not a formal member.’
    • ‘But her acting and, of course, dancing talents have actually not got her the deserving formal recognition in the name of awards.’
    • ‘He said that the audits were not documented because no formal complaint was brought against her.’
    • ‘That is issued pursuant to the 1951 Convention but only once formal refugee status is accorded.’
    • ‘AIB said it could not comment on individual cases, but added that all loans were sanctioned via formal written documentation.’
    • ‘He said he plans to lodge a formal complaint with the legal department of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘The provision of employment for inmates by the Department does not constitute a formal employment relationship.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘It said that in the absence of any formal complaint even the authorities were not in a position to launch an investigation.’
    • ‘But how could the simple formal recognition of property be the solution for the development of Third World and former communist nations?’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘We want credentials and acknowledgement in some officially recognized, formal way for the work we have invented.’
    • ‘Although the early revision cases were not suitable for formal testing, they were recorded as treatment failures and included as poor results.’
    • ‘Poor communication and failure to take account of the patient's perspective are at the heart of most formal complaints and legal actions.’
    • ‘However, as professional and amateur historians we could very much utilize a formal definition of what constitutes an orphaned work.’
    • ‘A person could only enter the premises by becoming a formal member of the club.’
    • ‘For years, these students were permitted to study without a formal student visa, which requires full-time study and proof of financial assets.’
    • ‘If bitten, victims are urged to make a formal complaint to the authorities and the owners could face stiff penalties.’
    • ‘Of course wars still took place, but most often without the formal sanction of the UN Security Council.’
    official, legal, authorized, approved, validated, certified, endorsed, documented, sanctioned, licensed, recognized, authoritative, accepted, verified, legitimate, lawful, valid, bona fide, proper, prescribed, pro forma
    View synonyms
    1. 2.1 Having a conventionally recognized form, structure, or set of rules.
      ‘he had little formal education’
      • ‘As a singer, did you have any formal training or did you just begin knowing that you wanted to sing?’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘That is why the development of formal education designed for blind people is now facing great constraints.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘From that initial drawing, a more formal design for the structure evolved.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Is there some formal expression of etiquette that is appropriate here?’
      • ‘By age 5, children become interested in formal games with rules or two or more sides, and explicit activities.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘By combining formal knowledge with real world experience and new ideas or perspectives, the construction of new knowledge occurs.’
      • ‘His first formal graphic design education was at a vocational school the year before he graduated high school.’
      • ‘Her idea was to connect formal, structured education with real-world learning opportunities.’
      • ‘Do you make the distinction between a formal hypnotic state and the everyday trance state?’
      • ‘Traditionally, formal education was under the authority of the Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church.’
      • ‘Additionally, the man himself is an inspiration due to his own lack of formal design education.’
      • ‘Since I hadn't received a formal graphic design education, I did not have the rudimentary skills required to develop a mature design style.’
      • ‘I have no real formal music training, like every other punk who gets a keyboard for his bar mitzvah.’
      • ‘Some would say that the caliber of work we do demonstrates a formal education in Graphic Design.’
      • ‘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
      View synonyms
  • 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’
    • ‘Now I love formalism, if it reaches sensible results, and if it rests on formal distinctions that make sense.’
    • ‘That work has no content beyond its formal execution of idea.’
    • ‘It is also vital to debate criteria of formal quality in art alongside conceptual rigor.’
    • ‘There are no distinct actors to give it formal content.’
    • ‘A viewer should expect that a dance will undergo some type of development of its formal components and thematic content.’
    • ‘The large pieces, often 40 inches high, with their simplified color schemes draw more attention to their formal qualities.’
    • ‘The rope pieces pursue more resolved compositions and traditional formal concerns.’
    • ‘But there are difficult questions to be asked as to how one might distinguish innovation from formal novelty.’
    • ‘Both the content and the formal layout of the inscriptions changed.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘The pictorialist landscapes expressed the value of formal qualities that were anathema to establishment photographers.’
    • ‘Ostensibly, the title designates the thematic qualities of the sonnets, but it also announces their formal qualities as well.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘These sketches stick in the mind not just because of their content but because of their formal qualities.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Either way, the change itself is formal: purely formal change or the formal change of some content.’
    • ‘Richards documents the many changes masks are undergoing, especially in their formal qualities.’
    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.
      • ‘In a formal proof, all the intermediate logical steps are supplied.’
      • ‘These words which might be supposed to be vague in meaning in fact perform a very precise formal function.’
      • ‘First, modern mathematical methods were to be represented in formal deductive systems.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘There have been a lot of ‘proofs’, some aided by kinds of formal or symbolic logic.’
      • ‘After all, we may know many things that have nothing to do with formal logical systems.’
      • ‘It says that no consistent formal logical system can prove its own consistency.’
      • ‘One can have rigorous, logically sound formal systems based on diagrams.’
      • ‘The contradistinction of the two logics, formal logical and dialectical, is equally unjustified.’
      • ‘In fact, the viewer should be able to inspect a visual representation and a traditional logical formal proof with the same rigor.’
      • ‘In the logical formal mode, proof is provided in linearly connected sentences composed of words that are carefully selected to convey unambiguous meaning.’


North American
  • 1An evening gown.

    • ‘Madhav, who has run the shop for 27 years, turns out formals, ‘party’ wear and election gear.’
    • ‘It was Louis dressed in his formals and looking amazingly handsome.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘She would do her hair up for fun sometimes, and trot around her apartment in evening formals for no reason at all.’
    • ‘She had a serious weakness for formals and so most of her parties involved dressing up.’
    • ‘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.’
    1. 1.1 An occasion on which evening dress is worn.
      • ‘The 007 look-alike competition took place over the weekend with our youngsters embarking on a night to remember at the formal.’
      • ‘So anyway, Kelly wants Kevin to ask her to the formal.’
      • ‘I remember my mother wearing this dress when she attended a business formal with my dad.’
      • ‘I went to the winter formal when I was a freshman.’
      • ‘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 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.’
      • ‘I went to my winter formal with a girl I liked and had no fun.’
      • ‘When students are in the twelfth grade they attend a senior school dance called the formal.’
      • ‘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 seems the only things going on there anymore are Thursday night residence parties and high school formals.’
      • ‘They both just said, ‘So, are you going to the formal with anyone yet?’’
      • ‘It was Friday, the day before the winter formal, and his tuxedo still wasn't ready.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Everywhere she went, the girls talked of dresses, hair, make-up, and most of all, dates for the formal.’
      • ‘Any parent who has a child in the latter years of high school is only too familiar with formals.’
      • ‘‘I didn't know there was a winter formal,’ Noella said, examining the sweater in the mirror.’
      • ‘Why couldn't he have just invited a different girl to the winter formal?’
      • ‘He was my guide post for everything before the 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.’


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