From an article quoted in Mark Shepherd's Mastering the National Admissions Test for Law, p.181:

The totalitarian state is easy to define, easy to identify, and thus offers a recognisable target at which the archers of human freedom can direct their darts. Not so obliging is what I have referred to as the quasi-state, that elusive entity that may cover the full gamut of ideologies and religions, contends for power but is not defined by physical boundaries that identify the sovereign state. Especially frustrating is the fact that the quasi-state often commences with a position whose basic aim – a challenge to an unjust status quo – makes it difficult to separate from progressive movements of dissent, with which, too, it sometimes forms alliances of common purpose. At the same time, however, there lurks within its social intent an equally deep contempt for those virtues that constitute the goals of other lovers of freedom. Thus, to grasp fully the essence of power, we must look beyond the open ‘show of force’, the demonstration of overt power whose purpose is to instruct a people just who is master. ...

The formal state, in its dictatorial or belligerent mutation, represents power at its crudest – African nations, caught in an unending spiral of dictatorships and civil wars, are only too familiar with this exegesis of power. Equally familiar, to many, are the daylight or night- time shock troops of state, storming the homes and offices of dissidents of a political order, carting away their victims in total contempt of open or hidden resentment....

According to the book, it can be gathered from the article that "formal states tend to be better defined than quasi-states". The answer key (p.257) explains it this way:

The article starts by saying that the ‘totalitarian state is easy to define’ and that ‘not so obliging is what I have referred to as the quasi-state, that elusive entity’. On the basis of this comparison, it can be gathered that formal states tend to be better defined than quasi-states.

Does this equate "formal" with "totalitarian"? Which definition of formal applies here?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because ELL is not Law School Prep. Please stop. (If you could rephrase these kinds of questions as English language questions, that would be fine.) Sep 15, 2014 at 8:37
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    Question-asking is good, so don't take it the wrong way. People do want to help with language understanding. But these questions are often less about really feeling you have a trouble understanding English itself...you seem to be pretty good with that. Just because English is not your native language (presumably) doesn't mean every question about something which happens to be written in English is fair game on a site trying to help people learn English. Does that make sense? Sep 15, 2014 at 8:42
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    I guess the author has in a non-quoted earlier part of the text, explained that he sees a totalitarian state as a form of a formal state. Later in the text as used for the question, he refers to formal states in their totalitarian mutation. Formal doe snot equal totalitarian, but for the author, totalitarian is a form of formal. Which is not a very strange assumption, but it is not explicitly mentioned in the text.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 15, 2014 at 8:49
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    @LeP - It's not just a matter of rephrasing, it's also a matter of pace. Your first question from this book was a little interesting; the next, maybe a little bit, too. After a while, though, any time I saw Mark Shepherd's name on the question list, I simply rolled my eyes and sighed. If we got one or two of these a week they might garner more interest than if we saw one or two a day. We're up to 29 questions in the past 10 days; the reaction seems to be lukewarm at best – I see very few upvotes in those 29 questions.
    – J.R.
    Sep 15, 2014 at 10:16
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    There is currently a new Law Stack Exchange forum being defined in Area 51: area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/67858/law If you're studying for law school, that would be a better fit for your questions. Consider committing to the Law SE proposal and contributing some sample questions to help get that site off the ground.
    – Egghead99
    Sep 15, 2014 at 20:03

1 Answer 1


Imagine a group of friends get together to play a game. The rules are all written down, and everyone has a copy of those rules. No one is cheating or looking at other people's cards. Yet still, the game is unfair. It is easy for the players (or those watching the game who are not playing) to notice how unfair the game is. Although the game is "bad", at least it being honest about its badness, so it can be clearly identified. That is because the rules have been formalized.

Now imagine a different game, in which the rules are never printed out explicitly and there are no checks on cheating. It's hard to know if there were any partnerships between the players arranged in advance, the game may be "rigged" to pre-determine who will win. It's much harder for anyone to know if this game is fair or not. You might have still gotten people together and told them some of the rules, but it's only a quasi-game.

Mark Shepherd isn't talking about games on a playground. He is using terminology to describe the rules and organization of political states. So he distinguishes "formal state" and "quasi-state" for these two categories.

On the other hand, "totalitarian state" is not his invention, it's a known term:

totalitarian state - a government that subordinates the individual to the state and strictly controls all aspects of life by coercive measures

A totalitarian state must be an example of a "formal state" in the sense above. If it's going to be so explicit about control, its rules must be published and known...rigidly enforced. That doesn't mean that all formal states are "evil"--consider that most games which print out their rules clearly and disallow cheating are fair and fun to play. And if the world had any constitutional republics that actually honored their constitutions, they'd probably be nice places.

His point is that a "quasi-state" is more slippery for people to judge due to its informality. So while people might think the worst situation is a totalitarian state, that some of the more insidious ones are other kinds of states he is labeling "quasi-states".

That seems to be the meaning in the Shepherdverse, but really it's his stuff. In baseline English, if you were to see the words "formal state" in sequence it would to be to say something like:

The senator attended the formal state dinner wearing a piano key necktie, which many thought was disrespectful.

There, "formal" modifies "state dinner" and not "state"...to describe it is a fancy occasion.

And if you asked most English speakers for a definition of "formal state" they might be able to come up with a guess of what it would be. Yet if you asked for an antonym they would likely guess "informal state" instead of Shepherd's "quasi-state". Because "quasi-" is mostly used by pretentious lawyers and such. :-)

I'll re-iterate that these are rather specific questions to the Mark Shepherd domain, and require a lot of reading between the lines, and aren't a good fit for the format. But in response to willingness to edit and question, I offer my attempt to answer.

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    I think you did a good job of answering the English part of the question. The assumption that readers would know that totalitarian is an example of a formal state is what could make this passage hard to understand. The writer contrasts the concrete example with the abstract idea of a quasi-state, which could be difficult for someone learning English to catch using just definitions.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 22, 2014 at 16:20
  • @CollenV Thanks. Yes, well, it would be nice if we could assist in locating a better venue for the English reasoning questions overall. Sep 22, 2014 at 17:27
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    I agree that there is a surprising lack of places for folks to get help understanding particular passages, which is why I think it would be nice to bend the off-topic rule a little bit if a particular phrase or sentence of the passage can be singled out as confusing.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 22, 2014 at 20:30
  • +1. Thanks. @HostileFork: How did you determine all this from the passage? Or have you studied or reada about this before?
    – user8712
    Sep 23, 2014 at 13:07
  • @LePressentiment I have a general intuition of what "formalism" and "quasi-formalism" would mean from engineering and math. So it's reasonably easy to integrate that with guessing what he means from what he's saying. Although I'd be hardly surprised--given how he writes--if I interpret something Mark Shepherd said and have him say "...on the negative, in actual happenstance the issue has deeper gradations..." and have it be something else entirely. This ties in to why people consider these questions to be too domain-specific to really qualify as "English learning". Sep 23, 2014 at 13:58

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