1. The shape, outline, or overall structure of an object or figure.
2. (as in ‘form and content’) The structure, and sometimes also the style, of an utterance, text, or artwork in any medium as distinct from its content, subject, or literal meaning. These are sometimes referred to as its formal features. Aesthetic texts tend to foreground form (in contrast to informational texts); see also foregrounding. Form and content can only be separated for analytic purposes. Although linguistic ‘dualists’ argue that the same content can be expressed in different forms (see also cloak theory), ‘monists’ argue that changing the form changes the meaning (see mould theory). Despite the conduit metaphor, form is not a ‘container’ of meaning and can itself be meaningful. For instance, in visual representation (even in typography), curvy shapes have connotations of femininity. ‘Abstract’ art may not refer directly to the world, but connotation ensures that it is never ‘pure form’. In this sense, form can be seen as a kind of content (see also formalism).
3. The general categories to which a particular text or artwork can be assigned: how it can be related to existing types, genres, or formats. Genres are associated not only with certain formal and stylistic features, but also with particular kinds of content (see also iconography). Insofar as content is adapted to pre-existing forms, form can be seen as preceding content (a structuralist notion), but the process of adaptation may sometimes contribute to the development of hybrid genres.
4. A particular configuration in relation to its function (see also functionalism). The principle that ‘form follows function’ implies that the means employed should be well-adapted to some generic function. Functional frameworks have been applied not only to the design of tools and techniques but also to forms which have evolved rather than been designed: such as conventions, genres, and language (see also communicative functions; design features; linguistic functions). In either case, functions are ultimately subordinate to the actual purposes of real users in specific contexts: see also communicative purposes.
5. (philosophy) The ideal and abstract character or essence of a thing as distinct from any specific material manifestation (Plato), or what places a thing in a species or kind (Aristotle).
6. (in relation to substance) In Hjelmslev's framework, the form of expression (language, formal syntactic structure, technique, and style) and/or the form of content (semantic and thematic structure) as distinct from the substance of expression (physical, material form) and/or the substance of content (subject matter or genre). In other words, it refers to the relative abstractions of structure and style rather than to the concrete specificities of material form and content.
7. In gestalt perceptual theory, a pattern perceived as a whole ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
8. (cultural forms) Codes, conventions, and practices associated with a particular culture or subculture: see also dominant forms; emergent forms; residual forms.
9. A structured document, either on paper or onscreen (e.g. online), requiring the provision of specific items of information. Such forms are employed in survey-based research: for instance, in market research.