Sean Curley Formality Presentation

Sean Curley
Understanding and effectively using a particular
language requires several degrees of competence
◦ Lexical competence: knowing the words of a language
and their meanings
◦ Syntactic competence: knowing how to put those words
together in meaningful ways
We can use real words in the language, and put
them in the proper order, and still sound “wrong”
◦ We can’t just know the what and how of language, but
the where and when (context competence)
◦ Shown by appropriate register choice
A register is a subset of all the linguistic rules
that we have available to us
We change our register to meet the
expectations of a situation
◦ Different social gatherings
◦ Different individuals in similar social scenarios
 Depends on personal relationship
Context-incompetence can have very negative
◦ The age of the global economy
◦ Different languages, different rules
 Ex.: Tu and Usted in Spanish
 Ex.: Japanese honorifics
◦ Students of different socioeconomic status (Payne 2008)
 Students from lower SES may default to incorrect register
◦ The rise of CMC communication
 “Chatspeak” and its lexicon
 “The linguistic ruin of this generation” (Axtman 2001)
 But wait…(Tagliamonte and Dennis (2008); Varhagen et al (2009))
A standard for registers would be nice to
◦ Those unfamiliar with registers could use such a
◦ There are a lot of registers to classify
Formality seems to be a common difference
amongst registers, and the biggest area of
potential misinterpretation
◦ Developing the standard around the concept of
formality would be, at the very least, a good
starting point
A working definition of formality
Some sort of scale of formality
An evaluator for speech acts
Can these even be developed, and how?
◦ So that we know by what measure to evaluate speech
◦ So that we can provide an idea of formal levels
◦ So that we can classify registers based on these levels
◦ So we can insert those acts into our formality registers
and have a useful scale
◦ (That’s my research question.)
Past attempts at developing scales
◦ Joos (1967)
 Defined formality registers in terms of the relationship between
 Frozen – Formal – Consultative – Casual – Intimate
 Every language has these five levels
◦ Gemmell (2009)
 Defined formality registers by social consequences (cultural scripts)
 Language-independent
 Formal – Somewhat Formal – Everyday Courteous – Slightly Informal –
Past attempt to define and measure formality
◦ Heylighen and Dewaele (1999)
 “Deep formality”: ambiguity avoidance
 F-measure, analyzed speech acts by word type
Formality should include ambiguity avoidance, we should use the
correct choice of words to minimize the chance of being
It should also include politeness rules, as if we are not polite
enough (or even too polite), we also run the risk of being
An attempt at a definition: “The level of formality of a
communicative act is the degree to which the communicator is
concerned (perhaps cautious) with the act being correctly
interpreted by the recipient.”
As a speech act decreases in formality, it will be less about what
is literally said; the recipient must use more effort or have more
background knowledge to correctly interpret the act
The five levels that Joos and Gemmell use are
a good starting point; let’s create the scale by
situations of increasing formality with the
situations in which to use them
◦ Ceremonial: Rituals; strictly follows appropriate
◦ Presentational: Academic work, business meetings
◦ Transactional: Conversation between professionals
towards gaining information
◦ Casual: Conversation between friends
◦ Internal: Close friends or family
The evaluator is going to need more work
◦ Heylighen and Dewaele’s research is useful for relative
formality and might help to determine bounds, but
seems to ignore politeness
A proper evaluator should include ambiguity
avoidance along with politeness
◦ Politeness rules of a language need to be observed and
◦ There are some obvious ones (slang is typically frowned
upon in more formal situations)
◦ Should we evaluate by number of rules, strength of
 Use F-measure to better differentiate?
Creating a useful objective scale is possible;
it’s just really difficult
◦ Defining the scale is the easy part
◦ Evaluating acts is hard because defining and
measuring politeness is hard
◦ The evaluator will inevitably be at least somewhat
specific to the culture in which it was developed
Once we have the tools, we can use them to…
◦ Evaluate our own speech
◦ Use it as a teaching tool for students learning
Axtman, Kris. “‘r u online?’: The Evolving Lexicon of Wired Teens.” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 12,
2002. <>.
Gemmell, Maggie Sue. "Defining Formality Levels: Cultural Scripts as a Guide to the Formality Scale of
Register." Thesis. University of Texas, 2009. University of Texas Libraries Digital Repository. Web.
Heylighen, Francis, and Jean-Marc Dewaele. "Formality of Language: Definition, Measurement and
Behavioral Determinants." Internal Report (1999). Center "Leo Apostel", Free University of Brussels.
Web. <>.
Joos, Martin. The Five Clocks. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. Print.
Payne, Ruby. "Nine Powerful Practices." Educational Leadership 65.7 (2008): 48-52.ASCD. Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Web. Sept.-Oct. 2011.
"Register (sociolinguistics)." Wikipedia. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2011.
Tagliamonte, S. A., and D. Denis. "Linguistic Ruin? Lol! Instant Messaging And Teen
Language." American Speech 83.1 (2008): 3-34. Web.
Varhagen, Connie, G. P. McFall, Nicole Pugh, Lisa Routledge, Heather Sumida-MacDonald, and Trudy E.
Kwong. "Lol: New Language and Spelling in Instant Messaging."Reading and Writing 23.6 (2009): 71933. Department of Psychology, University of Alberta. Web.
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