Form – how to understand it

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Form – definition

form Form is a term which refers to the recognisable shape of a text or a speech act.

redbtn This shape may be either physical or abstract.

Spoken Written
Conversation Menu
Sermon Letter
Announcement Novel
Anecdote Article
Joke Poster


redbtn The term ‘form’ is used in linguistics and in literary criticism as a technical term.

redbtn It is used when considering the shape, the construction, or the type of speech or writing.

redbtn An awareness of form can help to produce more efficient communication.

redbtn Keeping the ‘shape’ of writing in mind helps to clarify the type of end product required.

redbtn NB! An appreciation of form is developed via practice and experience.

redbtn Form is an important part of stylistic analysis – together with audience and function.

redbtn When studying a text we first try to identify its form. What type of writing is it? (Is it a letter, an advertisement, a timetable, or a novel?)

redbtn Then we might ask ‘To whom is it addressed?’ [audience] and ‘What is it doing?’ [function].

redbtn When thinking of linguistic or literary form, it’s sometimes useful to think in terms of material shape. For instance, a table is usually a rectangular horizontal surface supported by legs at each corner. That is the form of a table.

redbtn Similarly, a piece of writing which begins with a postal address and the words ‘Dear Sir’, then ends with ‘Yours sincerely’ – is likely to be a letter. This is the form taken by most letters.

redbtn It is possible for one form to contain another or several other forms. For example, a novel may contain a letter or a poem. A sermon may contain an anecdote.

redbtn Most poems have a form, but this varies a great deal. The sonnet is in part defined by its form which is the number of lines and the rhyme scheme.

redbtn Form in speech may be signaled by recognizable phrases, tone of voice, or choice of vocabulary.

redbtn For instance, ‘The train now standing in platform ten…’ would be recognised by most people as the start of a railway announcement.

redbtn Similarly, ‘O Lord, we beseech thee to …’ would easily be identified as the start of a prayer.

redbtn If someone says ‘My grandfather always told me that …’ we know that they are probably going to offer moral advice – a piece of homespun wisdom.

redbtn Beware! The term ‘formal’ has widened in its application to mean ‘serious’ — just as ‘informal’ has also extended its meaning to encompass notions of friendliness.

redbtn For instance, the greeting ‘Hi there!’ might be described by most people as informal. However, because it is part of a recognised verbal ritual, in linguistic terms [strictly speaking] it is ‘formal’ because it has a fixed shape.

redbtn The two terms, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ therefore need to be used accurately when applied to linguistic or literary analysis.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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