I’m a geek. Let’s get that straight. I’m not a nerd. Geeks are people who tend to be obsessive over a particular set of arcane knowledge. Nerds are people who are obsessive about learning. The differences are subtle, and to some extent overlapping. I could draw you a Venn diagram, but then, simply by virtue of the suggestion, I think I prove my point. SLP is a nerd. She will provide historical citations to back me up on this. In short, nerds read more books than geeks. At least if you exclude sci-fi/fantasy.
Anyway, yes, there places where geekdom and nerdery overlap. One of those places is in language itself. So perhaps I’m being a bit nerdy here, and not just geeky as usual, but I feel I must address one of my longstanding pet peeves of language misuse that I’ve been observing with increasing frequency: the confounding (to me) confusion (by others) over the words formerly and formally. These two words are not even close in meaning, yet I often see one substituted for the other — almost always “formally” for “formerly,” come to think of it. I suspect that many people just don’t even know “formerly” is a word.
Perhaps, formerly, you were one of them. But no longer.
The adverb formally means “in a formal way.” The adverb formerly means “at an earlier time.”
Another way to look at it is to simply drop the “-ly” adverb suffix and compare the base adjectives: “formal” and “former.” So, really, maybe the problem here is that none of you were paying attention in fourth grade grammar class. Clearly, I think that those who are misusing these words are failing to understand some aspect of the linguistic structure underlying them. Because if you do understand, it’s almost impossible to mix them up.
Or is it?
I certainly thought the two words were about as distinct as could be, until I looked at this quiz which challenges you to read a sentence and determine which of these two words belongs in it. It’s not as clear cut as you might think. For example:
I recognize her face, but she and I never have been introduced (formally/formerly).
My gut tells me to use “formally” here, but “formerly” would also technically be correct (even though “previously” — or nothing — would probably sound better). However, all of the questions in this quiz are only challenging from the perspective of the reader/listener, who is trying to determine the original intent of the writer/speaker. The writer/speaker should not be struggling with this ambiguity, assuming they themselves know what they’re trying to say.
So we’re right back at square one: do you know what you’re trying to say, or not? And if not, why are you talking at all? Formerly I would have been more tolerant, but now I am formally asking you to get it right before you write. All right?