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I'm not a native speaker, so frequently I don't know underlying semantic subtleties of synonyms; what connotations they bear, which may be antiquated or very official, which are specific to given region or group and such.

Currently, I'm struggling with:

  • engagement / betrothal,
  • betrothed / affianced / engaged / to be married
  • betrothed / a wife-to-be / husband-to-be / fiancée / fiancé

Which ones would be proper for extremely formal occasion (royal pair)? Which ones are more informal? Can you outline differences between them, their general use? And in case I missed some other synonyms, could you supply them?

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Betrothal carries two implications for me - first, that it wasn't the decision of the people involved, and was perhaps a decision taken when one or the other was still a child. And second, that while there is a promise of marriage, there's no date or certainty to it.

In contrast engagement means "we're going to get married". (There was once the idea of "engaged to be engaged" - people who were still in school or otherwise too young to get married or even plan a wedding, but wanted to say they would get married some day.) Old fashioned people like me say you're not engaged unless you have "a ring and a date" but I know plenty of people who use the words fiance and fiancee to mean "person I love who I will probably end up marrying" and in many cases "person I love, live with, and am raising children with who I will probably end up marrying" but they have no firm plans to actually do that. Language moves. You won't go wrong by assuming a fiance or fiancee means there is an actual wedding in the next year or less, but don't be shocked if it doesn't and the person just wanted a stronger word than boyfriend or girfriend.

I usually only hear the -to-be forms during actual wedding planning conversations with people who don't know both parties. "Where will you and your husband-to-be live after you're married?" for example. This solves some time-travel problems that would otherwise be in the question: "you and your fiance" won't be living anywhere after you're married, because he won't be your fiance then, but he's not your husband now which makes the question odd if someone just asks about "you and your husband". The -to-be fixes that. Like when people say "I was on vacation with my then-fiance" if by the time they tell the story, he's been promoted to husband.

Of course if they know you, they can just ask "Where will you and John live after you're married?" so it has a more formal use. Perhaps because of that, the -to-be forms are more formal to my ears than fiance and fiancee. They sometimes appear in advertising: "everything for the bride-to-be" for example as well as in conversations. A bit like mother-to-be, they're not everyday speech unless someone is being amusing by mocking that kind of talking.

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  • It’s not absolute, but to my ear betrothal has a slight connotation of something used for a future bride moreso than for a future groom. Can’t say why. And there are counterexamples: in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare writes “So says the prince, and my new trothed Lord.” – tchrist May 13 '12 at 13:36
  • Fiancé(e) definitely means "the person I'm engaged to marry" in British English. The "person I love and live with" is a partner. – Andrew Leach May 13 '12 at 17:29
  • @AndrewLeach I agree, in the UK people just say partner. In North America I hear that mainly for same sex partner. Some people seem to feel it's ok to live together as long as you're engaged, so they use the word fiance or fiancee to describe someone with whom they have that arrangement. It happens enough that I don't always say "oh, how exciting! When is the wedding!" on being introduced to a fiance or fiancee. – Kate Gregory May 13 '12 at 17:44
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In the U.S., engaged is by and large the more popular term. Betrothed and affianced both sound old-fashioned, and perhaps overly formal.

The person to whom one is engaged is typically referred to as the fiancé(e). Sometimes I'll hear the term bride-to-be, particularly when talking about wedding plans.

As to how to refer to a royal couple, however, I hesitate to give a response. That sounds more like a protocol question than an English question.

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    The formal announcement of a recent royal wedding in the UK used "engagement" and "engaged" tinyurl.com/36kdc7w (Prince of Wales' website). Prince William's bride-to-be was routinely referred to as his fiancée. – Andrew Leach May 13 '12 at 12:19
  • eggcorn? @J.R. You mean 'by and large'. – Kris May 13 '12 at 15:45
  • @user20908: Thx; fixed. – J.R. May 13 '12 at 16:11
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An engagement has largely taken the place of betrothal in the West. It used to be that a couple were betrothed (troth and to 'plight one's troth' means to promise or be loyal to someone) but at that stage, there was no set date for a wedding. Children were often betrothed as an alliance between families and that meant (as far as the parents were concerned) that the couple could consider no other partners as they grew up. In ancient Jewish law, a betrothed couple could live together as man and wife quite legally before the actual marriage (as Mary did with Joseph in the Bible). In fact marriage without a period of betrothal was frowned upon.

Today, hardly anyone talks of a betrothal; it's now an engagement but in this transaction there is usually some specific time frame for the marriage, even if that's a year or more ahead. So to be betrothed is a mark of exclusivity - it means you are considering no other partner but the one to whom you have given your promise or 'plighted your troth'. This may or may not end in marriage.

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Betrothal and engagement have very different connotations.

An engagement is a more modern term and a statement of intent to marry, often having a date already established, hence the saying among older generations that an engagement isn't one until there is a ring and a date set.

Betrothal dates from before marriage was a purely civil matter. Today, a marriage is not valid until a marriage license is issued and signed by the bride and groom with witnesses and the issuing official having signed as well in many countries. The prospective couple can be wed in a church, but it won't be recognized as valid until the marriage license is completed and submitted.

In many traditions, a betrothal essentially means that the couple is married in all but name, and was common until recently due to marriages often being held off for economic reasons as a husband was expected to be economically self-sufficient before marriage. This was especially true if he is the eldest (surviving) son and thus has to be able to take care of his parents in their old age. During a betrothal, the bride and groom still live with their respective families until the wedding, in which they will then live in the same house. There have been exceptions to this rule.

There is also the political aspect of betrothal, as arranged marriages were more common in the past for the purposes of furthering political and economic alliances, with the bride and groom often having years to get to know each other before the marriage.

In both cases, a betrothal was (and in some cultures, still is) as legally binding as a marriage. If either party sleeps with someone else other than their betrothed, it was, and still is in some cultures, considered adultery in the eyes of the law. Furthermore, a betrothal could only be ended through a divorce, unfaithfulness on the part of one or both of the parties.

Also, any children born during a betrothal were automatically considered legitimate without the father having to publicly acknowledge the child as his (with significant stigma if the father claims the child is not his but it can be proven that the mother had remained faithful) and is in line to inherit even if the father dies before the marriage.

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    What English-speaking country or culture are you referring to? As your answer refers to legal implications this is highly pertinent. – David Sep 13 '17 at 12:14

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