Sometimes when I look up the meaning of a word in google, like just now for "gustatory", not only do I get what part of speech it is but also added information, such as that it's a "formal" adjective.

Were I to look for the meaning of, say, "delicious", there will be no additional note.

But were I to look up a word like "cerulean", this time the added information will remind me that it's a "literary" adjective.

Which brings me to the question, what is the difference between formal and literary? Does it mean that if I write a poem, I should use "cerulean" but if I'm writing a letter to a local politician, then I should use "gustatory"?

Another question would be where can I find a list of everyday adjectives versus formal adjectives versus literary adjectives?

Thank you very much for your help!

  • Literary: She answered nature's call, formal: she powdered her nose.
    – oerkelens
    May 6, 2016 at 9:56

2 Answers 2


As I see it, literary means that it is more often found in books, novels, and such. You wouldn't hear it very often in spoken conversation.

Formal means that it is used in a context of formality -politicians, speeches, research studies...- , AND it could be both literary or spoken conversation.

I am not sure where you can find a list like that, but if you have a background in any other romance language, as a general rule, words that come from latin and greek tend to be more formal / literary, and words that come from germanic roots are usually more colloquial.

  • Ah I see, thank you. As a follow up question, are these the only two (or the main two) roots for English language (latin/greek vs german)?
    – Ray
    May 6, 2016 at 9:22
  • If I remember correctly, it isn't German properly, but a language previous to German that influenced both German and English. They have also a lot of words that come from French, but French ultimately comes from Latin and Greek so.... Yes, I'd say those are the main roots of the English language. You can have a look at this web page, you might find it useful: englishleap.com/vocabulary/root-words May 6, 2016 at 9:30

Looking at my Oxford Dictionary and what it has to say about such labels, I see that it makes a distinction between Register and Style;
Formal denotes Register and is 'more common in formal (esp. written English), while Literary denotes Style and is 'found mainly in literature'.
These are descriptive, telling you where they are normally found, rather that prescriptive which would be telling you where they must be used.


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