• 2-minute read
  • 24th July 2017

Word Choice: Formally vs. Formerly

Who do you call when two words sound the same and you can’t tell them apart? Us, that’s who. And to prove it, we’re going to explain the difference between ‘formally’ and ‘formerly’.

Formally (Officially or In a Formal Manner)

‘Formally’ is an adverb meaning ‘officially’ or ‘in a formal manner’. When used to mean ‘officially’, it would appear in a sentence like this:

Prince formally changed his name to a symbol in response to a contract dispute.

Lesson: never enter a contract with an eccentric musical genius.

The ‘in a formal manner’ definition usually refers to following custom or convention in some way. For example, if you received an invitation to a posh event of some kind, it might say:

Guests are requested to dress formally.

This would mean wearing clothes that match a traditional dress code.

And in case you’re wondering, the opposite of ‘formally’ is ‘informally’. This term is used when ‘formal’ rules don’t apply or are being ignored for whatever reason.

Formerly (Previously or In the Past)

‘Formerly’ is also an adverb, but means ‘previously’ or ‘in the past’. If you were discussing how a building had changed over a period of time, for instance, you might say:

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Formerly a hospital, it has since been turned into residential flats.

This is also why, when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, he was usually referred to as ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’.

Phew. For a second there, we didn’t think we’d fit in another Prince reference. But now we can relax.
(Photo: jimi hughes/wikimedia)

Formally or Formerly?

You shouldn’t get these words confused if you know their adjective forms: ‘formal’ and ‘former’. ‘Formal’ means ‘in accordance with custom’ or ‘official’, so ‘formally’ (with an ‘-ally’) applies when something is done officially or according to convention.

‘Former’, on the other hand, means ‘previous’ or ‘past’, so ‘formerly’ (with an ‘-erly’) applies when describing something from the past. So if you’re writing an essay, remember:

Formally = In accordance with convention or officially

Formerly = Previously or in the past

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