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I'm a bit confused about the two words. To my Finnish self they both seem to have a similar meaning of morphing or the definition of a structure, and some dictionaries confirm that. I'm thinking of the words in terms of "the doing of...". I couldn't find a name for that kind of class though, even in Finnish, so let's call them ingverbs.

Forgive me for the extra jargon, but I think it's helpful to explain the context. A database has objects, such as tables which hold data and procedures which operate on that data. Those tables need to be defined precisely in order to have proper structure.

My original sentence was: "One must make sure each object is formatted and maintained properly."

And the sentence I'd like to construct is one of these:

  • The formatting and maintenance of the objects...
  • The formation and maintenance of the objects...

So my questions are:

  • Is formation an ingverb of format?
  • If not, what is the difference in meaning?

P.S. If you know a name for the class ingverb, please comment, so we can get rid of that thing.

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  • Comparing/contrasting 'regular' nouns with ing-forms ('gerund' is ill-defined) usually involves the answer given at the near-duplicate A 'gerund' – or use a regular noun?: 'As is usually the case where there is a choice, the 'pure' noun choice emphasises the field etc, the ing-form the carrying out of the process. Though there can be a single event - general domain contrast (a broadcast / broadcasting).' However, here, ... May 17 at 15:22
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    'formation' is closely associated with 'form', whereas 'format' [V] (and hence 'the formatting of ...') is far more closely associated with 'format'[N]. This makes the 'field vs carrying out of process' distinction unavailable. May 17 at 15:22

3 Answers 3

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  1. Formation is a noun. It is no more a verb than my first name.
  2. A look at its definitions and synonyms shows that it has primarily to do with the creative act or object resulting from such an act.
  3. Formatting as a gerund or verbal noun retains the meaning of the verb format. In this case, formatting refers to the manner in which something was arranged into a particular format (noun).

These words are not interchangeable. They have different meanings. For example in the two snippets you provided, both are grammatically correct; however, they (at the very least) hint at different meanings. To see that they are not interchangeable, consider the following sentences:

  1. The formation of the world happened eons ago.
  2. The formatting of the world happened eons ago.
    • This sentence is grammatically correct, but it is not meaningful.

The term ingverb is particularly dangerous in English. A verb ending in -ing may be a present participle, a gerund, or a verbal noun. When it is a present participle, it is acting as an adjective or adverb. When it is acting as a gerund, it may take an object and/or be modified by an adverb. When it is a verbal noun, it is just that -- a noun.

  • Fighting is bad. (verbal noun)
  • Fighting your friends is bad. (gerund)
  • The fighting cock is bad. (present participle)
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  • Thank you for the answer, especially explaining the -ing classes. But I must ask: would you use formatting or formation in this context, where one is creating something that has a specified structure?
    – Felix
    Apr 22, 2018 at 10:55
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    Based on your original sentence and having worked with databases, I am inclined to say that you want to go with "formatting" here. I have not seen the word "formation" used in the tech world very often. They prefer the word "creation". Even in this case, for your needs the actual format of the records is more important than the actual creation of the records. Apr 22, 2018 at 11:10
  • 'Green's fiercely fighting his friends is bad' shows ... what usage? The ACGEL (Quirk et al) analysis of such ing-forms involves a gradience (though even this has problems beyond the 'over-detailed treatment' in application). But chosen models (such as your verbal noun / gerund / present participle classification) are not universally accepted (the CGEL, Huddleston et al lumping is different again), and need authoritative referencing. See Is this a gerund or a noun?. May 17 at 15:10
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Formation is the result of adding the suffix -tion to the verb form, not to the verb format. The difference between formation and formatting is thus the difference between the two verbs: form and format.

What is that difference? On the face of it, there does not seem to be a significant one. To form something means to give form to it, and to format it means to put it in some format; so far as the etymology goes, one would expect these to amount to pretty much the same thing. The application of either word seems to presuppose that there is something previously unformed/unformatted to which the form/format is added.

In actual usage, there is, in fact, a considerable difference, and the two are definitely not interchangeable. Using the verb format tends to bring to the forefront the presupposition that the relevant stuff is already in existence prior to formatting. Moreover, that verb implies that the stuff that is formatted is more important than the formatting, that formatting is a relatively minor addition to it.

Using the verb form, on the other hand, takes the attention away from the previous existence of whatever is formed, and focuses on the result. Formation can thus often be used interchangeably with creation. For example, 'this company was formed in 1962' is, for most ends and purposes, interchangeable with 'this company was created in 1962'. The verb form in the first formulation does imply that there was something already in existence to which the form of a company was given in 1962, but that implication is not on the forefront of one's mind when using the verb; the focus is on the company that is the result of the formation.

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You can think of formatting as a subset of formation where the accent is put on the visual aspect like color, font-size, border, background, position, dimension etc.

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    – Community Bot
    May 17 at 14:57
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    I disagree with this answer. There is almost no overlap between the meanings of formation and formatting in the current language. Formation is usually about the act or process of forming (creating) something, and only describes a spatial arrangement when talking about objects (most often planes) moving somewhere together. Formatting is entirely about spatial arrangement, nearly always of text or documents.
    – Colin Fine
    May 17 at 15:58

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