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Register and Style

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English

The way we speak or write changes depending on where we are, who we are speaking to, or the purpose of the text. These changes in our language relate to register and style.

This article explains what a register is, introduces the five main types of register, and provides some tips for identifying register. It then discusses writing styles and explains how we, as writers or speakers, must choose the most appropriate register according to the style of the text.

Register definition

Before we dive in, let's look at a definition:

The term register refers to the various ways people use language based on who they're talking to and their situation. We often talk about register in terms of formality.

For example, our word choices, tone of voice, and body language will likely differ in a formal situation (e.g. a job interview) compared to informal situations (e.g. hanging out with friends).

Although the term register is most commonly used to describe formality, it can also describe the general language used by groups of people who have something in common, such as their occupation (e.g. two lawyers using legal 'jargon' in a conversation).

Jargon

Words and terms a specific group of people uses – usually related to work – that others might find difficult to understand.

The register we choose to use during communication (consciously or subconsciously) is determined by several different social factors, such as the context (where), purpose or occasion (why), and audience (who).

Now that we have a basic idea of what register means let's look at some of the main types of registers and when we can expect to use them.

Register examples

There are five main types of different linguistic registers. They are: frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate.

Frozen register

The frozen register, otherwise known as the static register, is used for very old pieces of discourse, such as wedding vowels, readings from the bible, and Shakespearean plays. It's called the frozen register because the language hasn't changed for a long time, and it will continue to remain the same even though that language is no longer used today.

Formal register

The formal register is often associated with standardised versions of English and is used in formal situations.

A formal register is most commonly used to address people in positions of authority and individuals that merit respect, such as headteachers, police officers, and people who work in the services. In writing, you would use a formal register in letters of complaint, official speeches, or essays.

Consultative register

The consultative register is usually used when there is an expert-novice relationship between the two people engaging in the conversation, i.e. someone who knows a certain subject and someone who doesn't. The consultative register involves a tone of respect since the advice is being sought and given and is usually quite formal. However, the consultative register can also be informal and include things such as slang, depending on the relationship between the two people.

Examples of when the consultative register can be used are between a doctor and a patient, a teacher and a student, and between a boss and an employee.

Casual register

The casual register typically refers to informal speech used between people who know each other well. The casual register often contains slang, contractions, swear words, and features of speech from local dialects. The casual register is what's usually used in everyday language.

Intimate register

The intimate register refers to the informal language used when talking with close friends, family members or romantic partners. The intimate register is often used in private and can be used when discussing personal issues, sharing secrets, telling inside jokes, or when being flirty!

Sometimes we use more than one register when we're talking and there usually aren't clear 'boundaries' between them.

Identifying register in linguistics

According to the linguists Halliday & Hasan (1976),1 register can help define discourse (written or spoken language) by adding another level of meaning. It's important to recognise register, in written and spoken language, to respond in an appropriate way. This may prove to be an important skill in your exams.

So, how can we identify the register? We need to look for contextual clues!

Examine the grammar and spelling

Grammar use can tell us how formal or informal a text is.

Formal text will use standardised grammar, avoid contractions (e.g. don't), standardised spelling, and follow standard layout guidelines, e.g. use of paragraphs.

I look forward to meeting you tomorrow.

Kind regards,

Kate.

Informal text is less constrained to standardised grammar and spelling and may use contractions and abbreviations.

Can't wait to see ya girl!

Examine word choice

Vocabulary choice can dictate the register of a text and how formal or informal the writing is. Look at the examples below of two sentences saying the same thing but using different word choices.

  • I'm sorry to hear about your job. Let's meet for a proper catch-up soon?

  • Aww, sorry to hear that. Cuddles and hang out soon?

What can you interpret about the tone of the previous two sentences? How would you change your register when replying to each one if you received these as messages?

Examine the punctuation

The use of punctuation can help us identify the register and tone of a text. The tone can tell us whether the text is formal, informal, joyful, optimistic, pessimistic, sad etc.

Have a look at the following sentences and observe how the use of punctuation affects the feeling of the sentences.

  • We are going home tomorrow.

  • We are going home tomorrow...

  • We are going home tomorrow!

All these sentences state that the speaker is going home tomorrow; however, the punctuation used can change the tone. Note how the exclamation mark makes the speaker seem excited to be returning home, whilst the ellipsis suggests the speaker is disappointed to be leaving. The full stop can be considered to be neutral.

Code-switching

Code-switching isn't just for bilingual people...

Code-switching is switching between multiple different languages, dialects, and registers depending on the social situation the speaker is in.

Although we usually talk about code-switching in terms of switching languages, utilising different registers in communication is also considered code-switching.

A teenager at school may talk to their friends and classmates using a casual register, then code-switch to a formal or consultative register when talking to their teacher.

Register and style

The term style relates more to written text and refers to how the text is written to fit a specific purpose, including the choice of vocabulary, tone, use of grammar, sentence structure, and layout, which will all differ depending on the purpose of the text.

For example, if the purpose of the text is to convince the reader to buy a new product, the style would likely be persuasive.

There are four main writing styles: narrative, persuasive, descriptive, and expository. (we'll cover these more shortly!)

The writer should choose the most appropriate register for the style of writing.

For example, a persuasive text might use a casual register to create a sense of familiarity and friendship, and thus trust, with the reader.

Different writing styles

So what is the difference between the four main writing styles?

Narrative writing

Narrative writing is used to tell a story. It's most commonly associated with fictional writing, such as novels and screenplays, and non-fictional writing, such as speeches and autobiographies. We could use any register in narrative writing, and the register choice is dependent on the context of the story

Persuasive writing

Persuasive writing is used to persuade others of your ideas and thoughts or to convince others to change their behaviour somehow.

Examples of persuasive writing include advertisements, cover letters, and persuasive essays.

Essays would use a formal register, whereas advertisements might use a more casual register to create a sense of friendship with the reader.

Descriptive writing

Descriptive writing aims to 'paint a picture' for the reader. It aims to entertain and often contains many figurative and decorative language, such as metaphors.

Examples include poetry, song lyrics, and short stories.

Again, the register will depend on the context of the text. The writer may even choose to code-switch between multiple registers for literary effect.

Expository writing

Expository writing aims to explain something to a reader. This writing style needs to be clear, have evidence or statistics, and be concise: it should avoid any unnecessary jargon or complex language.

Examples of expository writing include 'How to' articles, textbooks, FAQ pages, and business writing.

Expository writing would usually use a consultative register.

Style vs register

The difference between style and register can be a little confusing, so let's clarify.

  • Style refers to how the text is written to suit its purpose (to explain something, persuade someone, describe a situation).

  • Register is the language required to fit the style of writing. For example, if you are writing a cover letter, you need to adopt a formal register. If you were writing an Instagram caption, you would most likely use a casual or intimate register.

Register and Style - Key Takeaways

  • The term register refers to the various ways people use language based on who they're talking to and their situation.

  • We most commonly talk about the register in terms of formal or informal language.

  • There are five main types of different linguistic registers. They are: frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate.

  • Switching between different registers when talking is a form of code-switching.

  • We can identify the register of a text by looking at the spelling, grammar, and vocabulary choices.

  • Style refers to how text is written to fit a specific purpose. The main writing styles are narrative, persuasive, descriptive, and expository.

  • The register is the language required to fit the style of writing.


References

  1. M. Halliday & R. Hassan. Cohesion in English. 1976.

Register and Style

Register describes the type of language the writer or speaker chooses to use. The term style describes how a text is adapted to fit a particular context.

Register and style refer to the language used by authors or speakers to suit the context and purpose of their writing or speech. Dialect is a way of speaking that is specific to a geographical location.

The term register refers to the various ways people use language based on who they're talking to and their situation. An example of a register is the formal register, which we would use in formal situations, such as writing essays or talking to a headteacher.

The main writing styles are narrative, persuasive, descriptive, and expository.

Final Register and Style Quiz

Question

What does 'consultative' mean?

Show answer

Answer

Consultative refers to giving professional advice or recommendations. 

Show question

Question

Define 'register'.

Show answer

Answer

Register refers to the variety of language a speaker chooses to use in a particular situation or exchange.

Show question

Question

What kind of dynamic is consultative speech usually characterised by?

Show answer

Answer

expert-novice

Show question

Question

What kind of word is 'consultative'?

Show answer

Answer

adjective

Show question

Question

True or false, an individual can switch between different registers depending on the situation they're in.

Show answer

Answer

True, register is related to circumstance not to the user themselves. 

Show question

Question

What does it mean to consult someone?

Show answer

Answer

To consult someone means to ask them for expert advice or recommendations. 

Show question

Question

List three words similar in meaning to consultative.

Show answer

Answer

  • advisory
  • informative
  • educational

Show question

Question

What four factors can determine what register to use in a situation?

Show answer

Answer

  • audience
  • time
  • place
  • formality

Show question

Question

Give three examples of expert-novice situations.

Show answer

Answer

  • teacher and student
  • mentor and mentee
  • industry professional and client

Show question

Question

True or false, the consultative register is often quite casual in tone. 

Show answer

Answer

False. The consultative register is usually characterised by relatively formal language use.

Show question

Question

Choose one phrase to describe the consultative register:

Show answer

Answer

purpose-driven

Show question

Question

What are the five other kinds of register?

Show answer

Answer

  • informal
  • formal
  • neutral
  • frozen
  • intimate

Show question

Question

What does neutral mean?

Show answer

Answer

Neutral means having no marked characteristics or features, and is often used to mean not positive or negative.

Show question

Question

Define Register.

Show answer

Answer

Register is a variety of language a speaker chooses to use in a particular kind of situation. 

Show question

Question

How many registers are there in English? What are they?

Show answer

Answer

6 - frozen, neutral, formal, casual, intimate, and consultative

Show question

Question

True or false, neutral language includes some slang and colloquialisms where appropriate.

Show answer

Answer

False. Neutral language should remain free of colloquialisms and slang.

Show question

Question

Give three examples of written situations where the neutral register is appropriate.

Show answer

Answer

  • professional emails
  • written reports
  • technical writing

Show question

Question

Give three examples of spoken exchanges where the neutral register is appropriate.

Show answer

Answer

  • giving directions
  • giving instructions
  • giving fact-based presentations

Show question

Question

​​​​​Choose one of the following options. Neutral language is: 


Show answer

Answer

non-emotional and fact-based

Show question

Question

Should the neutral register use long, complicated sentences or short, simple ones?

Show answer

Answer

Short and simple

Show question

Question

How formal is the neutral register?

Show answer

Answer

The neutral register is not overly formal or overly informal, but somewhere in the middle. 

Show question

Question

What is gender-neutral language?

Show answer

Answer

Gender-neutral language is any language that is free from gendered connotations.

Show question

Question

What are two common gender-neutral pronouns?

Show answer

Answer

They and Them

Show question

Question

Has English ever been a gendered language?

Show answer

Answer

Old English had some gendered grammatical structures and gendered nouns, but modern English is almost completely genderless.

Show question

Question

True or false. It's important for neutral language to stick to the point.

Show answer

Answer

True, the neutral register is fact-based and should not include opinions. 

Show question

Question

Would the neutral register be an appropriate language style to use when discussing a subject heavily influenced by personal beliefs or opinions?

Show answer

Answer

No, the neutral register is used in non-emotional subjects where personal bias should not arise. 

Show question

Question

Read the following sentence and decide if it is a good example of the neutral register or not:


"I visited Austria last month and it was the most amazing city in Europe!"

Show answer

Answer

This is not a good example of the neutral register, as it conveys a personal opinion rather than facts.

Show question

Question

Is the consultative register typically an emotional language style?

Show answer

Answer

No, the consultative register is characterised by professional and moderately formal language.

Show question

Question

List three kinds of industry professionals that might be able to provide expert consult to a client.

Show answer

Answer

  • Doctor
  • Lawyer
  • Accountant
  • (or any three other appropriate professions)

Show question

Question

True or false, a speech style is the same thing as a register.

Show answer

Answer

True, the two terms are interchangeable.

Show question

Question

A frozen register contains language that can be changed.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

A frozen register means that the type of language used has ___________ over time.

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Answer

not changed

Show question

Question

The frozen register is often used for official and serious purposes.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of the frozen register?

Show answer

Answer

Wedding vows

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not an example of the frozen register?

Show answer

Answer

Emails

Show question

Question

The frozen register can contain old-fashioned language that is no longer commonly used. What is this type of language called?

Show answer

Answer

Archaic language 

Show question

Question

The frozen register is also referred to as what?

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Answer

Static register

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an antonym for 'frozen'?

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Answer

changeable

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a synonym for 'frozen'?

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Answer

unchangeable

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Question

The frozen register can often contain archaic language. An example of this is the word 'thy'. What does this mean?

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Answer

your

Show question

Question

The frozen register can often contain archaic language. An example of this is the word 'thine'. What does this mean?

Show answer

Answer

yours

Show question

Question

The frozen register can often contain archaic language. An example of this is the word 'art'. What does this mean?

Show answer

Answer

are

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


The 'right to silence' is an example of the frozen register. Who reads it?

Show answer

Answer

The police

Show question

Question

When using the frozen register, the language _________ every time it is recited.

Show answer

Answer

stays the same

Show question

Question

Songs and poems are not examples of the frozen register.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

The intimate register is the most formal type of register.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

The intimate register is usually used in _______ situations.

Show answer

Answer

private

Show question

Question

The intimate register is not used with ________.

Show answer

Answer

strangers

Show question

Question

The intimate register is the most ________ type of register.

Show answer

Answer

informal

Show question

Question

The intimate register can be used between friends.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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