When to Use Formally or Formerly

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

'Formally' and 'formerly' are words that sound very similar, due in part to the fact that they are both adverbs and end in '-ly'. This lesson will walk you through how to use each of these adverbs correctly in a sentence.

Near-Identical Twins

A lot of people know about homonyms, which are words that sound alike but have different spelling and meanings, like 'to', 'too', and 'two' or 'there', 'their', and 'they're'. But what about near-homonyms? These are words that don't sound identical but are very close. These near-sound-alikes can cause confusion in oral communication, and this can bleed over into writing as well.

One pair of near-homonyms is 'formally' and 'formerly'. Though the middle syllables of these words are different, they sound very similar when spoken. This is partially because they are both adverbs, which means a descriptive word that describes a verb, adjective, or group of words. Many adverbs, like these two, end in '-ly'.

In fact, many adverbs are forms of adjectives, which are words that describe nouns. You make an adverb by adding the '-ly' to the adjective form. So 'formally' and 'formerly' are adverb forms of the words 'formal' and 'former'. Since those words don't sound as much alike, it's a good way to tell them apart.


'Formerly', as we just discussed, is the adverb form of 'former', and both words describe something that happened in the past or in earlier times. 'Former' (the adjective) would be used like this:

  • George W. Bush is the former president of the United States.

In this sentence, the adjective 'former' is used because it is describing the noun 'president'. 'Formerly', on the other hand, would be used to describe verbs (action words), adjectives, or groups of words:

  • The formerly violent criminal had been reformed.
  • Our white house was formerly pink.
  • May I introduce you to Mr. Johnson, formerly of Connecticut but now living in Florida.

Our white house was formerly pink.


'Formally' has the same relationship to its adjective form, 'former'. Both describe something that is proper or official. Here's the adjective 'formal' being used to describe a noun:

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