2.1: The Formality Spectrum

Learning Objectives

  1. Apply the key elements of business writing style to routine workplace communication scenarios.

The Formality Spectrum

In order to decide how formal our messages should be, we would have to first assess the context and profile our audience. In terms of context, a 5-minute presentation in front of a small group of colleagues in a routine weekly meeting would be far less formal than a 15-minute presentation at an year-end meeting with upper management employees. In terms of audience, we wouldn’t speak or write at the same level of formality when we address colleagues, interns recently hired, upper-management employees, clients, shareholders, etc.

Formal Style in Writing

Writing in such a style requires effort because your grammar must be tighter and the vocabulary advanced. Sometimes a more elevated word choice—one with more syllables than perhaps the first word that comes to mind—will elude you, requiring you to use a thesaurus (such as that built into MS Word in the Proofing section under the Review menu tab, or the Synonyms option in the drop-down menu that appears when you highlight and right-click a word). At the drafting stage you should, in the interests of speed-writing to get your ideas down nearly as fast as they come, go with the word that comes to mind and leave the synonym-finding efforts for the editing stage.

General-Level Writing

Your ability to use a general-level style is necessary in any situation where you communicate with familiar people on your level and when a personable, more conversational tone is appreciated, such as when writing to someone with basic reading skills (e.g., an EAL learner). In a routine email to a colleague, for instance, you would use a general-level vocabulary. You would also use contractions such as it’s for it is or it has, would’ve for would have, and you’re for you are . While not a sign of disrespect, the more relaxed approach says to the reader, “We’re all friends, so let’s not try too hard to impress each other.” Upper-level managers who want to be liked rather than feared permit a more casual style of communication in their employees’ interactions with them, assuming that doing so achieves collegiality rather than disrespect.

Informal Style and Slang in Writing

As the furthest extreme on the formality spectrum, slang and other informal means of communication such as emojis are generally unacceptable in business contexts. Slang is common in teen texting and social media, so it appears immature, frivolous, out of place, confusing, and possibly even offensive in serious adult professional situations. Say someone emailed a car cleaning company with questions about their detailing service and received a reply that looks like it was texted out by a barely literate 14-year-old, such as:

So yeah, well get yr car cleen  top 2 bottom – inside + out 30 min 150 bucks deluxe serv. – when can u come?

The inquiring customer would have serious concerns about the quality and educational level of the personnel staffing the company, and thus about the quality of work they do. The customer will probably just give the company a pass and continue looking for one with a more formal or even casual style that suggests greater attention to detail and awareness of professional communication standards. A company rep that comes back with a response more like the following would likely assure the customer that their car is in good hands:

Absolutely, we can do that for you. Our White Glove service thoroughly vacuums and wet-vacs all upholstery, plus scrubs all hard surfaces with pro-grade cleaners, then does a thorough wash and wax outside. Your autobody will be like a mirror when you pick it up. Please let us know if you are interested in our $150 White Glove service.

As a deviation from accepted standards of “proper” vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc., slang  has specific functions in adolescent and subculture communication — it is meant to score points with an in-group that sets itself apart from the rest of polite society. Its set of codewords and nonstandard grammar is meant to confuse anyone not part of that in-group and would sound ridiculous if anyone else even tried to speak it, as when parents try to level with their teens in teen vernacular. Obviously, if slang is used in professional contexts, audiences would find that offensive and they might also not understand some expressions used.

Obviously, most of you do not write that way, but Fanshawe professors who teach Professional Communication courses to graduate certificate students do receive, on occasion, messages that look like this:

hey so can u tell me where to find yr stuff on research like which folder
i need 3 day ext. for report prof plz

Those students clearly do not master even the basic communication principles needed to function in a workplace and would have to spend much more time than the rest of the students in their program studying for this course.

While most students would never use slang or any other inappropriately informal phrasing in a message to a professor or to a superior at work, some do use a more colourful style in email exchanges with trusted colleagues with whom they are also friends. That is, however, a dangerous habit: when using company channels, any message may be seen by unintended audiences. Say you have a back-and-forth exchange about a report you are collaborating on and you need to CC your manager at some point to provide an update on your project (or someone else involved does this for you, leaving you no opportunity to clean up the thread of past emails). If your manager looks back at the atrocious language and sees offensive statements, your employment could be in jeopardy.

There may be situations where slang style might be advantageous, such as marketing to teens — although the success of this type of language with that age group is, in large part, an ageist assumption rather than a reflection of reality. In any case, in professional exchanges, slang should be avoided because it tends to deviate from the typical characteristics of good writing.

Emojis in Professional Writing?

Though emojis’ typical appearance in social media and texting places them at the informal end of the formality spectrum, their advantages in certain situations require special consideration along with some clarity about their current place in professional communication. Besides being easy to access on mobile device keyboards and favoured in social media communication especially among millennials, emojis are useful for helping clarify the emotional state of the message sender in a way that plain text can’t. They offer a visual cue in lieu of in-person nonverbals. A simple “thumbs up” emoji even works well as an “Okay, got it” reply in lieu of any words at all, so they can help save time for the busy professional. Interestingly, 2,500 years after Egyptian hieroglyphics fell out of use, pictographs are making a comeback! Emojis also go partway toward providing something of a universal language that allows people who speak different languages to communicate in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

A Selection of Emoji Samples
Public Domain Image

However, the lack of precision in emojis can also cause confusion as they may be interpreted differently if the social and cultural context of the receiver differs enough from that of the sender (Pringle, 2018), not to mention differences in their emotional states. This means that emojis aren’t as universal as some claim they are, especially when used by correspondents who speak different languages (Caramela, 2018). Even between those who speak the same language, a smiley-face emoji added to a lightly insulting text message might be intended as a light-hearted jab at the receiver by the sender, but might be read as a deeply cutting passive-aggressive dig by the receiver. The same text message said in person, however, comes with a multitude of nonverbal cues (facial expressions, eye movements, body movements, timing, voice intonation, volume, speed, etc.) that help the listener determine the exact intentions of the speaker—meanings that can’t possibly be covered by a little 2D cartoon character.

You can imagine plenty of other scenarios where emojis could backfire with dire consequences. A red heart emoji added to a business message sent by a male to a female colleague, though perhaps meant in the casual sense of the word “love” when we say, “I love what you did there,” might be taken as signalling unwanted romantic intentions. This is inappropriate and can ruin professional partnerships and even careers. Be careful with emojis also in any situation involving buying or selling, since commercial messages can end up in court if meanings, intentions, and actions part ways. In one case, emojis were used in a text message signalling intent to rent an apartment by someone who reneged and was judged to be nonetheless on the hook for the $3,000 commitment (Pringle, 2017). As with any new means of communication, some caution and good judgment, as well as attention to notable uses and abuses that show up in the news or company policy directives, can help you avoid making potentially disastrous mistakes.

Though emojis may be meaningfully and understandably added to text/instant messages or even emails between familiar colleagues who have developed a light-hearted rapport featuring their use, there are several situations where they should be avoided at all cost because of their juvenile or frivolous social media reputation. It’s a good idea to avoid using emojis in business contexts when communicating with:

  • Customers or clients
  • Managers who don’t use emojis themselves
  • Colleagues you don’t know very well
  • Anyone outside your organization
  • College instructors
  • Older people who tend to avoid the latest technology

However, in any of the above cases, you would probably be safe to mirror the use of emojis after your correspondent gives you the greenlight by using them first (Caramela, 2018). Yes, emojis lighten the mood and help with bonding among workplace colleagues. If used excessively as part of a larger breakdown of decorum, as mocked in the accompanying Baroness von Sketch Show video short (CBC Comedy, 2017), they suggest a troubling lack of professionalism. Managers especially should refrain from emoji use to set an example of impeccable decorum in communications to the employees they supervise.

Source: CBC Comedy (2017)

Avoiding Inappropriately Informal Language: Clichés,

Professional writers should not just avoid slang in their workplace speaking and writing. They should avoid many other elements of language that are either informal or contribute to making the tone and style of a message seem more informal. Many communicators use these elements of language because they do not realize to what extent they are informal and how seriously they can affect the clarity and quality of their communication act.

Again, while the colloquial (informal) level of language might be acceptable in some workplace conversations with co-workers you’ve known for a while, it is generally not recommended in any business context, and anyone who writes professional emails or memos at this level can get into serious trouble. Readers usually perceive this kind of language as unprofessional and imprecise. As a rule,

  • Routine emails and memos should be written at the general level.
  • Longer reports, messages to upper-management employees, and some letters to clients should be written at the formal level, or somewhere in between the general and the formal levels.

Also keep in mind that research articles (articles published in academic journals) are usually written in formal language. According to many local employers, their employees have serious difficulties in reading such materials and selecting relevant information the company could use. Many local employers see this as a major problem – and they seek employees with advanced-level reading, writing, information-processing, and communication skills.

Finally, some elements of informal language might be necessary in promotional materials, but a careful assessment of the target audience is required in such situations.

  • If your organization offers products/ services mostly to professionals, overly informal messages might backfire.
  • Different age groups might react differently to certain elements of informal language.
  • Men and women might perceive certain informal expressions differently.

Avoid Clichés

Here are a few examples of sentences that use clichés. We provided a “translation” for the first one. Note that all three sound too informal for professional purposes.


“Last but not least, you should keep your nose to the grindstone so, at the end of the day, we can deliver the project on time.”

[Finally, you should work diligently to ensure the project is finished on time.]

Note that the initial version sounds too informal for professional purposes. Some people might consider the tone overly familiar and be offended. Another problem with informal language is that it tends to be wordy and, sometimes, confusing. The initial version is about half a line longer than the “translation,” and it is harder to read (pointless expressions make it harder for the reader to connect the main elements of the sentence). Perhaps one such sentence won’t frustrate and confuse the reader, but an entire message written like this certainly will.
Rephrase the following two examples yourselves.
  1. “We have reached the end of our rope with the so-called tried and true approach.”
  2. “He came up with that idea out of the blue.”

Here is a link to a “cliché song.” It’s not really entertaining, but please listen to the first 30 seconds of it for pedagogical purposes — so you can notice that, even though you probably know the meaning of most, if not all the clichés used by the singer, about 15 seconds into the song you’ll be struggling to keep track of what he is trying to say.

Direct Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asZEojIh-gg

Some of the clichés you heard in this piece are actually not informal but rather formal business clichés — but they are clichés nonetheless, and whenever we use clichés we force our readers to “translate” those expressions into meaningful language. This can significantly slow down reading/ information-processing (it affects listeners perhaps to an even larger extent than readers, since listeners cannot re-read portions of a talk to make sense of it), and receivers of messages composed in this style would not be pleased with the sender’s performance.

Here are a few more examples of wordy, vague, and informal clichés — with the general-level “translation” in the second column:

at the end of the day, after all is said and done, etc. ultimately, finally, etc
few and far between rare (ideally, provide more precise information: how rare?)
this day and age, at this point in time,etc. today, now, etc. [or: since 2000, since 2010, etc.]

Avoid Informal Word Choice

Consistently choosing words from the informal register over standard/ formal words would render your messages not just inappropriately casual in terms of tone and style but also, in some cases, vague — which would affect the clarity of the message. Let us examine a few examples:

guy man, colleague, specialist, manager, business partner, etc.
headache problem, concern, delay, etc
stuff ?? [name whatever you have in mind; the receiver shouldn’t have to guess]
huge “large” is more formal; ideally, provide exact figures (how large?)

Avoid the Informal “You”

Use the word “you” only if you are speaking directly to your audience. Do not use “you” to mean “people in general,” “customers,” etc. If you have a group of people in mind, use a precise word to refer to that group.

Avoid Exuberant Words/ Expressions

Generally speaking, avoid exclamation marks in professional writing (or use them sporadically). Also avoid informal expressions of exuberance (“I am writing this letter to apply for an Operations Manager position in your super amazing organization!”). While your messages should not be devoid of emotion, anything that may give your messages an immature tone or might suggest an overly casual attitude should be avoided.


Caramela, S. (2018, February 5). Put a smiley on it: Should you use emojis in business communication? Business.com. Retrieved from https://www.business.com/articles/put-an-emoji-on-it-should-you-use-emojis-in-business-communication/

CBC Comedy. (2017, July 17). Work emails | Baroness von Sketch Show [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM

Pringle, R. (2017, May 26). Using the wrong emoji can cost you—literally. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/emoji-lawsuit-1.4131697

Pringle, R. (2018, March 18). Emojis are everywhere and they’re changing how we communicate. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/emojis-forever-pringle-1.4577456


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Advanced Professional Communication Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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