Formerly and Formally – Learn the Difference

Formerly and formally are two easily confused words.

Spell-check applications of most word processing programs would not find a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check looks for words that aren’t in its dictionary or words that resemble words in its dictionary but are likely spelled wrong but like anything else, spell-check isn’t perfect. It can’t guess what word you have intended or what word you wanted, it can only judge the words on the page. If your words are all spelled accurately, it gives you a pass.

Autocorrect recommends words that start with the same letters. It recommends what word you may want to save time, but very often, its recommendations are seriously off the mark. They often don’t help, but they do sometimes make you laugh.

Formerly (pronounced “fohr-murr-lee”) is an adverb. It means a previous state for someone or something. Examples include an old brand name, a past job, or a surname. Formerly is often used to modify “known.” For instance, in the 1990s, Prince was referred to as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince in print media.

Formally (pronounced “fohr-mah-lee”) is an adverb meaning an object or behavior associated with an elite, refined, high-caliber setting. Red carpet events demand its attendees dress formally.

Graphic showing the difference between formerly (previous) and formally (refined)

The following story uses both words correctly:

Forde Fordham, formerly Fisk Ficus, wasn’t notified that he was required to dress formally to attend tonight’s event. Fortunately, his wingman, Gage Garrison, tipped him off at the last second, and he dodged into a tux rental shop before he arrived. 

Related: We have a slew of articles on similar sounding words such as this one: Is it purposely or purposefully? 

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By Connie Fisher

Connie Fisher is a freelance writer and editor specializing in business writing and marketing. She holds a bachelor's degree in media and journalism and has contributed to a slew of printed and online media, including Contra Costa Times, Daily American, the The Tri-Town News,, and many more.

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