Toward an empirical understanding of formality: Triangulating corpus data with teacher perceptions

Tülay Dixon, Jesse Egbert, Tove Larsson, Henrik Kaatari, Elizabeth Hanks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Academic writing is often referred to as “formal,” but the teaching and assessment of formality can be challenging as formality has been conceptualized in many ways. The goal of this study is to explore the elusive construct of formality in the context of academic writing, especially with regard to what formality means to academic writing instructors. We used instructors’ perceptions of formality (i) to identify relationships between the use of linguistic features in academic texts and perceptions of formality and (ii) to determine the extent to which the situational characteristics of texts (e.g., differences in audience, purpose, and discipline) are related to perceptions of formality. Specifically, we asked 72 academic writing instructors to rate the formality level of 60 short academic text excerpts on a five-point scale. The excerpts were sampled from two publication types (university textbooks, journal articles) in three disciplines (psychology, biology, history). Overall, the results indicate that perceptions of formality can be explained by both linguistic features and situational characteristics. As linguistic features and situational characteristics are intertwined, differences in perceptions of formality seem to be functionally motivated. Implications for the teaching of academic writing are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-177
Number of pages17
JournalEnglish for Specific Purposes
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • Academic writing
  • Formality
  • Informality
  • Linguistic variation
  • Register
  • Situational characteristics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


Dive into the research topics of 'Toward an empirical understanding of formality: Triangulating corpus data with teacher perceptions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this