In InE, the word formality (yes, we use it in singular!) is too often used in different contexts. And in most of the cases (especially in a social matter), the word, contrary to its definition, means something with no serious intention/willingness!

An example is here:

Tarun never wanted her to attend his wedding. Though, for the sake of formality, he asked.

And how would Tarun ask (the tone is different as it's for the sake of formality)...

Hey Tia, I'm getting married on Friday. But I think you must be busy on that day. It's okay if you can't make it. :)

Now the definitions of 'formalities':

  • a requirement of rule, custom, etiquette, etc
  • the condition or quality of being formal or conventional
  • strict or excessive observance of form, ceremony, etc
  • an established, proper, or conventional method, act, or procedure

No definition makes formalities a light word, an optional material!

OALD describes a thing that you must do as a formal or official part of a legal process, a social situation, etc -Again, it does not, by any account, makes the word light or optional.

Now, in my case, it was not a 'must-do' thing for Tarun to ask Tia. In fact, in India, putting the word for the sake of formality removes the condition of must-do. That's because Tarun certainly takes inviting Tia as an option and it's not at all mandatory.

The question: May I use formality as a singular word? *May I use formality/ies the way I used in Tarun's case when things are not mandatory? If I'm heading somewhere else, how serious natives take while speaking of formalities?

  • @MaulikV I'm not sure I understand your question, especially when it seems like you already know the meaning of "for the sake of formality". If the formality requires him to invite someone, and he doesn't want to invite them, I think it's fair to say that he tries to do whatever required traditionally, just for the sake of it (formality). Though it's obvious that he doesn't want Tia to come to the wedding. Jun 25 '14 at 7:28
  • @DamkerngT. The doubt is if something done for formality, the definition says it must be done whereas my entire focus is on formality being optional. You get that?
    – Maulik V
    Jun 25 '14 at 7:47
  • 1
    No, I don't get that. I think formalities are things we are supposed to do. Jun 25 '14 at 7:49

American and British English use formality in this fashion as well. The usage is in line with the definitions presented here, as - even in your Tarun / Tina example - a formality remains an imperative (a must-do). But, as with all must statements (except maybe logical entailment), there are implicit conditions and consequences: you must do this [if you don't want that].

If something is a formality, you must do it if you want to remain within the bounds of normal, accepted or polite societal laws, etiquette or customs. If you don't care about violating the rules or the attendant repercussions, then you've no need to mind formalities. Logically speaking, obeying a formality is always optional. But, sometimes the situation or consequences make it obvious that there's only one reasonable choice to make.

In your example, Tarun invites Tina to the wedding for formality's sake, even though he doesn't want her to come. He's obligated to do so because he does not want to be rude, disappoint his family, or for some other similar reason. The language of his invitation makes it clear that he doesn't want her to go, but because he did extend some sort of invitation, he's obeyed the letter of the [social] law, and if Tina complains, he can say that he did invite her. We might say he extended her the courtesy of an (admittedly false) invitation.

Here's another example. Consider the CEO of a company interviewing a promising candidate for a job. The hiring process is lengthy, involving multiple screenings and a fair amount of tax paperwork for the government. The CEO is blown away by the applicant and says:

You're hired! Don't worry about the final interview or filling out these forms, those are just formalities at this point.

This means that the applicant will be hired, and the last interview is now just a hollow observance necessary for adherence to company policy. Similarly for the forms, filling them out is needed to legally and officially begin the employment, but the CEO is saying you work here now to the interviewee. These things are formalities - they're obligatory for remaining in compliance with governing rules - but the results aren't in question (they normally would be) and if the consequences of breaking the rules weren't important, the formalities wouldn't be observed.

  • +1. So, if there is something to be done for the sake of formalities, it could be optional, isn't it?
    – Maulik V
    Jun 25 '14 at 9:06
  • It's always optional. But, psychologically speaking, we don't consider some things "optional" because of how obviously appropriate it is for us to do them. For example, not going naked in public. This is a formality - etiquette and laws prohibit it - but almost everyone doesn't even consider doing otherwise, even though they possess the ability and nothing (external) is actually preventing them from doing so. If we say something is merely a formality, we mean we are doing it only because we don't want to break the rules and don't value or agree with the action itself. Jun 25 '14 at 9:53

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