Formally and Formerly

Formally and Formerly

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The words formally and formerly are near-homophones: they sound almost the same. Their meanings, however, are different.


The adverb formally means in a formal way or following accepted forms, customs, or conventions.

The adverb formerly means previously, in the past, at an earlier (former) time.

Also see the usage notes below.


  • Henri Rousseau is known as a self-taught painter, which means that he never formally studied art.
  • "Placing the thesis at the opening starts the essay with a strong statement, providing a clear direction and an outline of the supporting evidence. However, if the thesis is controversial, it may be more effective to open with supporting details and confront readers' objections before formally announcing the thesis."
    (Mark Connelly, The Sundance Writer, 5th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2013)
  • "People's names escaped me and I began to worry over my sanity. After all, we had been away less than a year, and customers whose accounts I had formerly remembered without consulting the ledger were now complete strangers."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "Running down the length of the island is a cement wall. If the 'illegals' (currently 'undocumented workers"; formerly 'wetbacks') are walking north and a Border Patrol vehicle happens along, they simply hop over the wall and trot south."
    (Luis Alberto Urrea, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, 1993)

Usage Notes

  • "The adverb formally is a word that implies doing things in accordance with set routine, something that is laid down by convention or enmeshed with a network of other requirements. Wearing a dinner jacket would be labelled formal wear, the new railway station will be formally opened by the mayor, and the prose of Edward Gibbon is formally complex. Formerly, also an adverb, relates things back to the past, to some former situation or context."
    ( David Rothwell, Dictionary of Homonyms. Wordsworth, 2007)
  • "Look at the two words with the suffix removed--formal, former. Think of formal invitations, formal dress, formality. In each of these is the idea of proper manner, politeness, doing things according to form. Former has to do with time, or order of sequence. Thus we say On a former occasion he talked about Italian lakes. We mean that he talked about Italian lakes on a previous occasion. In a similar manner we say Formerly he worked for Sage & Allen. You would never think of writing formerlity for formality; then why is it that sometimes you substitute formally for formerly? Perhaps you do not, but many others do."
    (Alfred M. Hitchcock, Junior English Book. Henry Holt and Company, 1920)


(a) This simple cafe in the center of the city was _____ a swank restaurant with candle-lit tables, a small orchestra, and exorbitant prices on the menu.
(b) In the old days, both men and women were expected to dress _____ for dinner.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

Answers to Practice Exercises: Formally and Formerly

(a) This simple cafe in the center of the city was formerly a swank restaurant with candle-lit tables, a small orchestra, and exorbitant prices on the menu.
(b) In the old days, both men and women were expected to dress formally for dinner.

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words


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