Register and Style

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.

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Table of contents

    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 vs Style, girl with sunglasses, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Your clothes aren't the only things that can be stylish; you words have style too!

    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. This can include 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 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 vows, 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.

    Register vs Style, handshake, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The formal register is most often used when addressing an authority figure.

    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 typically 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 to close friends, family members or romantic partners. The intimate register is frequently used in private and can be used when discussing personal issues, sharing secrets, telling inside jokes, or when being flirty!

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

    Identifying register in sociolinguistics

    According to the linguists Halliday & Hasan (1976), register1 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 appropriately.

    The study of register and style is important in sociolinguistics because it allows us to understand the way that language is used in different social contexts, and how it is shaped by social and cultural factors.

    By examining register and style, sociolinguists can gain insights into the relationship between language and society, including how language is used to convey power, identity, and meaning.

    For example, the use of formal language in a professional setting can indicate a speaker's education level, while the use of casual language in a social setting can reflect a speaker's level of intimacy with the other speakers.

    In addition, the study of register and style can also provide a deeper understanding of how language use changes over time, as well as how different social groups use language to maintain or challenge their power relationships.

    This information can be useful in many fields, including education, law, journalism, and communication studies, where language use plays an important role in shaping the way that people think, feel, and act.

    So, how can we identify the register used in social contexts? 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 is considered to be neutral.

    Register vs Style, punctuation, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Punctuation can be used in writing to denote different registers.

    Register and style: 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: what is style?

    The term style relates more to written text, and refers to how the text is written to fit a specific purpose. Style includes 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.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Register and Style

    What is 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.

    What is meant by register, style and dialect in sociolinguistics?

    In sociolinguistics, 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. All these are crucial for understanding how language is used in different social contexts.

    What is register and its examples?

    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.

    What are different writing styles?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What kind of dynamic is consultative speech usually characterised by?

    What kind of word is 'consultative'?

    Choose one phrase to describe the consultative register:

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