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.
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.
Language register determines how you express yourself based on the content you're trying to communicate and who you speak to.
Think about it:
What differentiates language registers can be several things:
Your choice of language register will vary depending on several factors, including:
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.
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'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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
That concludes this article on language register. I hope you found it helpful.
Let's summarize what we've learned:
If you enjoyed this article and want to continue your grammar education, check out our Grammar Rules blog.
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