Level of formality, the main component of linguistic register, imposes an artificial ineffectuality on writing and is nothing but a pain for writers. Why must writers comply with the applicable register; more fundamentally, what is the substance of formality rules? Does a formality level consist of a congeries of purposeless admonitions? That implausible and useless assessment is implied by the style-guides’ treatment, but you can intelligently comply with general rules only by understanding their purpose. Then, why do style guides omit mention of what writers do when they adopt a register or why they should do it? This entire series explores the function and nature of formalities. Explaining their under-analysis is easier; “Formula and Formality” already has. Formalities recognize and reinforce norms of hierarchy and distance, an unpleasant topic for writers: who wants to think of himself as kowtowing?
The entry “Formula and Formality” identified the two dimensions of formality level, social status and social distance, but it only nodded toward the latter. The tests proposed in that entry detect “status formalities,” while this series deals with “distance formalities,” those less embarrassing, weaker norms governing intimacy rather than subordination. A legal writer who breaches a status formality challenges the judge’s authority, whereas one who breaches a distance formality seeks an unwanted intimacy. Writers should avoid either breach, but breaching a status formality is worse: the judge’s reaction is "moving against,” angry and aggressive, because you are, unwittingly, staging a rebellion. Breaching a distance formality, on the other hand, evokes avoidance of excessive social propinquity, as when one person stands too close in conversation, invading the other’s “space.” It elicits “moving away,” rather than “moving against.” Avoid either breach, but you can see which produces direr results. Still, full acknowledgement of distance-formality’s demands modifies some conclusions. We will discover, for example, that the use of contractions, which “Formula and Formality” showed irrelevant to status formality, may nonetheless breach the weaker defenses maintaining social distance.
“Formula and Formality’s” thesis was that status formalities, those literary norms that acknowledge one’s station in life, are governed by a principle prohibiting subordinates from lessening their own burdens at superiors’ expense. (See "Proofreading and Credibility.") Even seemingly arbitrary connections between status and its marker—as with the French use of vous instead of tu when addressing superiors—manifest the superiors’ entitlement to substitute subordinates’ effort for their own: enunciating the shorter but less distinctive tu form is the superior’s exclusive prerogative. The formula for distance formality takes another tack: face-to-face speech between intimates is informality’s model, and the features of written communication, stripped of similitude to speech, mark formality. Shifting effort to the social superior constitutes status-formality breach; failed hypertrophy of certain features distinguishing writing from speech constitutes distance-formality breach.
The next entry will consider specific differences between speech and writing accounting for distance formalities, to recognize them by example and precept.
Next entry: Part 2. Levels of formality