Language Register in English Writing: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 31, 2023

Language register is something you use every day in speaking, writing, and sign language, even though you might be unaware of it. So what is it? That's what you'll learn in this article.

In short:

  • Your language register informs the type of vocabulary you use and how closely you stick to grammar rules based on the setting.

What is Language Register?

We all use language registers daily when we speak, write, and sign, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. In fact, I'm using it right now. It's usually best to gain awareness of it because this will allow you to make intentional decisions that improve your English language use.

Read on to find out what it means and learn about the different types of language registers.

Definition of Language Register

Language register determines how you express yourself based on the content you're trying to communicate and who you speak to.

Think about it:

  • You won't express yourself in the same way if you're chatting to a friend as when you give a presentation to your seniors at work.

What differentiates language registers can be several things:

  • Ranging from specialized vocabulary (jargon)
  • The difference in intonation
  • Adherence to varied grammar rules
  • Even using certain turns of phrases.

Using the Right Register

Your choice of language register will vary depending on several factors, including:

  • Your audience
  • The topic of conversation
  • The context
  • Your purpose

Who are you talking to? What's it about? Are you giving legal advice or casually conversing at the grocery store?

Is this a BBQ with friends, a business meeting, or perhaps an email? Are you trying to convince, make small talk, or inquire about something?

The answer to these questions will affect the language register you choose to use.

Types of Language Register

Depending on where you look, you'll find differing information on types of language registers. Some people refer simply to the formal and informal (also known as casual or colloquial) registers. And that's correct. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find there is more than that.

I like American linguist Martin Joos's classification of language register types, so I'll lay them out for you here.


The frozen language register:

  • It relates to historical language that, unlike other registers, can't be changed depending on the context.
  • The words will always remain the same, and you'll use them regardless of the situation.

It's frozen in time, if you will.

Quotes from the Bible are a good example. Old texts like the Constitution are another. References to classic writings, such as a Shakespeare novel, would also be frozen.

Generally, anything that has stayed unchanged and will continue to remain intact is considered to be of the frozen language register.

Here's an example:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger;

This one's pretty easy to use because you're basically just quoting other people's words. You don't need to put much thought into how to employ this register.


The formal register is:

  • Used in settings where you want to impress
  • Earn or show respect
  • Be taken seriously
  • Communicate important information.

Some common examples of settings where you can use formal language are: at work, in email communication with employers, in an academic situation, at an interview, or in a court of law.

Under no circumstances will cheating be permitted. You shall not be permitted to speak to other pupils during examinations, nor shall you have access to your personal belongings. You are obligated to remain in your seats.

There are certain conventions around using the formal register. You would be expected to follow grammatical rules more closely, avoid contractions, slang, idioms, and swearing, form complete sentences, and so on. But don't use big words just for the sake of it, or you might come across as arrogant. Just stick to the rules, and you'll be good to go.


A consultative register is:

  • Mainly reserved for conversations about specialized knowledge or where a person gives specialized advice on a topic they're an expert in.

Therefore, this register is usually used in a conversation between someone looking for advice and a person qualified to give that advice. Or, if it isn't a conversation, it might be a tutorial via video medium, online, on the radio, or on TV.

This is where you can use the big words and not feel guilty about it!

Some likely settings where a consultative register might be used:

  • A check-up with a doctor
  • Seeking advice from a lawyer
  • An academic conversation about a research study.

The tone can be friendly in a consultative register and almost casual sometimes, but it would always be respectful.


The casual - or colloquial/informal - language register is:

  • Probably the one you use most naturally and most often.
  • It has a more relaxed feel to it and is more versatile, meaning you can use it in many contexts.

Basically, as long as the setting you're in doesn't require you to be more formal, then you can pretty much always get away with casual language. Use it when conversing with family or friends, chatting to the postman, or even with your colleagues in the break room.

I'm using it now in this blog post because the informal register makes for a smoother read. Shorter sentences, more contractions, and less complicated language give the text more flow.

Let's have a look at our earlier formal register example and change it to the casual register:

Don't cheat. You're not allowed to talk to your classmates or access your personal stuff. Please stay seated.

See how much shorter the sentence is? There are contractions in this passage, slang words ('stuff'), and less formal nouns ('pupils' becomes 'classmates'). There's definitely more flexibility with the casual register. It's not that you shouldn't try to make your sentences grammatically correct, but let's just say you'll be forgiven for bending the rules slightly.


The intimate register is:

  • Personal and private.
  • It might include inside jokes, made-up words, pet names, secrets, and non-verbal communication that only your close ones would understand.

Using cheesy pick-up lines when flirting is also a creative way to use the intimate register. For example, when you use fun and original ways to say 'I love you,' that's the intimate register.

For example:

I love you, Pumpkin.
I love you, Honey Bunny.


Here's the thing about code-switching: Everybody can and probably does use all the registers. There's a unique term to refer to the act of changing from one register to another, and it's called 'code-switching.'

There are actually many different forms of code-switching, and the term has significant cultural relevance. Still, for the purposes of this article, I'm referring only to switching from one register to another.

Code-switching is:

  • One of the many ways we, as human beings, adapt to our changing environments. We're like chameleons in a way.
  • We can sense when we need to change how we act and speak based on the setting and who we are talking to.

Here are some examples of code-switching:

  • The difference between how a teenager speaks to their parents vs their friends.
  • A conversation at the water cooler in the office vs on the phone with clients.
  • How a judge expresses themselves in a courtroom vs with their family.

Concluding Thoughts on Language Register

That concludes this article on language register. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • The language register determines how we speak based on the context.
  • Your choice of language register depends on several factors.
  • There are five types of language registers, according to one linguist.
  • People naturally code-switch.

If you enjoyed this article and want to continue your grammar education, check out our Grammar Rules blog.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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