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Is it acceptably formal to use "sheds light on" in a sentence? For example:

This sheds light on the matter in hand.

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  • It's okay to use in formal situations, I believe. Dictionaries I checked didn't mention it as informal. Check out: thefreedictionary.com/shed+light+on and en.wiktionary.org/wiki/shed_light_on
    – NVZ
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:07
  • Of course. I don't see how dictionaries top experience for questions like these....
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:12
  • "sheds light on" is archaic sounding, hence clearly formal. We don't actually talk about "shedding" as how light works in modern times. Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:17
  • @developerwjk - ngrams seem to differ: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Jim
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 23:18
  • @Jim, I didn't mean that "to shed light on" is not used anymore. I mean, the origin of the phrase is archaic. We would be more likely to say "shines" or something else if we were to invent it today. Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 23:50

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The question is, does the idiomatic expression "shed[s] light on" work in formal writing, or is its register generally deemed too informal to be suitable in such writing?

At one level this question may strike people as being primarily opinion based, but it can also be addressed historically and factually: we can run a Google Books search and check the results to see whether scholarly or otherwise formal publications have used the idiom. With that in mind, I ran a Google Book search for "shed[s] light on" for the period 2002–2008—and found numerous instances of the expression in publications of varying formality. Here are four of the more formal instances that my Google Books search turned up from books published in the year 2003.

From Mark Tebeau, Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003):

The scrapbooks of a St. Louis fire chief, the Charles Swingley Papers, shed light on the firefighting at the turn of the twentieth century. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) the Samuel Hazard Papers, the Campbell Collection, and the Philadelphia Fire Companies, Record Books, 1758–1904 held information on volunteer fire companies; ...

From Peter Kennedy, A Guide to Econometrics (MIT Press, 2003):

A Monte Carlo study is a simulation exercise designed to shed light on the small-sample properties of competing estimators for a given estimating problem. They are called upon whenever, for that particular problem, there exist potentially attractive estimators whose small-sample properties cannot be derived theoretically.

From F. Nagy, E. Kevai, K. Harter & E Schafer, "Phytochrome signal transduction," in Alfred Batschauer, ed., Photoreceptors and Light Signalling (The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003):

In parallel, recent studies about the subcellular localization of the photoreceptors shed light on a molecular mechanism that regulates nucleocytoplasmic partitioning of phytochromes. These data indicate that the various phytochrome-initiated phototransduction pathways, described in the following chapters in detail, are mediated by a tightly regulated interaction of molecules in the nuclear and cytoplasmic compartments (Figure 1).

And from Thomas Bernstein & ‎Xiaobo Lü, Taxation without Representation in Contemporary Rural China (Cambridge University Press, 2003):

This study sheds light on the nature and extent of the burdens. They were an issue primarily in agricultural areas, rather than in those areas where rural industrialization had made significant progress. It sheds light on the repercussions of the burdens by examining peasant protest and peasant collective action. And it sheds light on the attempts made by the authorities to find effective remedies.

From this quick glimpse, I think it's fair to say that "shed[s] light on" is by no means out of place in formal writing.

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  • +1 Another good answer from Sven Yargs that sheds more light than heat.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 22:47

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