What is Register in Linguistics?
by Richard Nordquist, Monash University.
Updated May 03, 2018
In linguistics, the register is defined as the way a speaker uses language differently in different circumstances. Think about the words you choose, your tone of voice, even your body language. You probably behave very differently chatting with a friend than you would at a formal dinner party or during a job interview. These variations in formality, also called stylistic variation, are known as registers in linguistics. They are determined by such factors as social occasion, context, purpose, and audience.
Registers are marked by a variety of specialized vocabulary and turns of phrases, colloquialisms and the use of jargon, and a difference in intonation and pace; in "The Study of Language," linguist George Yule describes the function of jargon as helping "to create and maintain connections among those who see themselves as 'insiders' in some way and to exclude 'outsiders'."
Registers are used in all forms of communication, including written and spoken. Depending on grammar, syntax, and tone, the register may be extremely rigid or very intimate.
It is the situational and cultural context that will often determine the register of a discourse. The Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics (Richards, Platt & Weber, 1987) defines "formal speech" as follows: "the type of speech used in situations when the speaker is very careful about pronunciation and choice of words and sentence structure. This type of speech may be used, for example, at official functions, and in debates and ceremonies"
Types of Linguistic Register
Some linguists say there are just two types of register: formal and informal. This isn't incorrect, but it is an oversimplification. Instead, most who study language say there are five distinct registers.
Frozen: This form is sometimes called the static register because it refers to historic language or communication that is intended to remain unchanged, like a constitution or prayer. Examples: The Bible, the United States Constitution, the Bhagavad Gita, "Romeo and Juliet"
Formal: Less rigid but still constrained, the formal register is used in professional, academic, or legal settings where communication is expected to be respectful, uninterrupted, and restrained. Slang is never used, and contractions are rare. Examples: a TED talk, a business presentation, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, "Gray's Anatomy," by Henry Gray.
A formal register is neither colloquial nor personal and is the register that is mostly used in academic writing. It is a register where strong opinions can be expressed objectively; it does not break any of the rules of written grammar and often has a set of rules of what not to do when using this register. The following extract is from Crystal, D. (1997). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics.
Several stages of development have been distinguished in the first year of a child's life when it develops the skills necessary to produce a successful first word. According to Crystal (1997), primitive vocal sounds are displayed within the first two months with basic features of speech such as the ability to control air flow and produce rhythmic utterance. Sounds such as cooing, quieter sounds with a lower pitch and more musical develop between six and eight weeks of age. Cooing dies away around three and four months and then a period called vocal play develops; an experimental stage, where a baby has more control and experiments with vocal practice.
Modern academic writing rarely uses this register. Sometimes, it may be encountered when reading transcripts of speeches or historical documents. Often, misunderstandings in recognising the difference between ceremonial and formal registers occur when writers are experimenting with new vocabulary.
I stand on this rostrum with a sense of deep humility and great pride - humility in the wake of those great architects of our history who have stood here before me, pride in the reflection that this home of legislative debate represents human liberty in the purest form yet devised.
Here are centred the hopes and aspirations and faith of the entire human race.
(General MacArthur's Address to the US Congress on April 19, 1951: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away).
Note the tricolon in the last sentence.
Consultative: People use this register often in conversation when they're speaking with someone who has specialized knowledge or who is offering advice. Tone is often respectful (use of courtesy titles) but may be more casual if the relationship is longstanding or friendly (a family doctor). Slang is sometimes used, people may pause or interrupt one another. Examples: the local TV news broadcast, an annual physical, a service provider like a plumber
Casual: This is the register people use when they're with friends, close acquaintances and co-workers, and family. It's probably the one you think of when you consider how you talk with other people, often in a group setting. Use of slang, contractions, and vernacular grammar is all common, and people may also use expletives or off-colour language in some settings. Examples: a birthday party, a backyard BBQ.
Intimate: Linguists say this register is reserved for special occasions, usually between only two people and often in private. Intimate language may be something as simple as an inside joke between two college friends or a word whispered in a lover's ear.
Informal (a reflection)
Generally, journalism — and, very occasionally, academic writing — use this register. When using an informal register, there is usually a close relationship between the writer, audience and topic with a degree of casualness. However, care must be taken in order not to mistake informal for familiar registers. The features of this register are different from the familiar register as more care is taken with grammar, for example. However, the tone is conversational, using colloquial language, compared to the formal register.
While I was on my way to the Science Lab, a thought struck me that perhaps all that we think is possible, may not be. For example, a friend and I were contemplating the prospect of dumping our classes and hanging out in our favourite café instead. We found that what we thought was possible, actually wasn't as our lecturer intervened on our way, ending up that we attended class anyway. Does this mean that what we originally thought was possible, can't be, as something will always intervene? How does this affect prediction and planning?
Note the variance in the lexical choices and syntax. This represents a mixed register, with elements of formality and informality.
Formality and Informality: Some Pointers
English has an amazing array of formal and informal tones. Just look at the following sentences:
"Depart from this domicile and desist all your illegal larceny."
2. "Leave the premises and cease stealing my property."
3. "Get out of my house and stop taking my belongings."
4. "Piss off outta my place and quit knocking off my stuff."
We can think of formality and informality not as a binary with two possibilities but as a sliding scale with varying degrees. The problem is that traditionally, the written word is more formal than the spoken word. Since most students form their verbal habits from daily speech rather than written speech, beginning writers have trouble maintaining a formal or informal tone in college papers.
Note that there's nothing inherently "bad" about informality. It all depends upon circumstances. If a male student was trying to woo a sweetheart, he might have better luck if he relaxed and said, "You know, I think I'm in love with you," than if he tried to be ultra-formal and told the girl, "Dear madam, my cogitations suggest an inordinate affection on my part." There's a reason we have familiar, friendly language.
On the other hand, some statements or situations call for a certain gravity. Informality can come across as callous or rude. Writing an informal letter starting, hey mate! It breaks me up to say your old lady kicked the bucket" is certainly less appropriate than "Dear Sir, I regret to inform you that your wife has died."
Some subjects (such as writing about one's childhood, or writing about a humorous topic) may be well suited to a relaxed, informal tone. Some subjects (such as writing a research paper, analysing literature, making a grant proposal, or submitting a résumé) may demand more dignified words and formal expressions.
Consider the following and make them more formal:
She just wanted to say, "Hey youse"
That question is a no-brainer!
That's a cheesy TV show.
Chopping up frogs in biology grosses me out--like, it gags me totally.
5. Mate, what's up with that?
6. That prof needs to chill out about kids using slang. We can't all talk like her.
7. Now, girlfriend, don't you be dissing me!
8. That boy's such a grammar-geek.
9. Hey! That fella is a player, I'm telling you.
10. He seems a bit flaky to me. He oughta be in rehab.
11. That's the boss-man calling for ya, buddy.
12. Six bucks for that dress? What a rip off!
13. That rookie is hot stuff on the 'turf, man!
Make the following more informal:
1. One cannot condone such deceptive evasions in a prisoner's answers.
2. This vile medical concoction purportedly diminishes the required need for sleep.
3. That incorrigible ruffian suffers from kleptomaniacal impulses.
4. Dear Sir, I compose this letter in response to your previous solicitation via telephone.
5. Madam, one might consider three potential destinations for your Caribbean excursion.
6. Might one offer a beverage to the guests during this soiree?
7. His rich, silken vestments befit a king.
8. I suffer from interminable bouts of insomnia at irregular nocturnal hours
Listen to Scott Morrison’s national apology to victims of child sex abuse (approximately the first 3-4 minutes). What elements of formality can you identify in this excerpt? Consider the context, the social purposes, the audience and the register in your assessment of the speech.
Now, watch the Scott Morrison bus clip below (up to 2’15”). What changes do you see here as opposed to the parliamentary apology? Do you agree with the discussion after the clip about the change in formality? Is this kind of persona a good model for the leader of a country?