The first question you may be asking is, what is register in English?
Language register in English is the scale of formality used when we write and speak English.
There are five basic levels or different types of register in writing and speaking – high formal, formal, neutral, informal and vulgar.
For instance, high formal would be the level of language used to address the Queen, while formal would be used to speak or write to your boss.
Neutral is the level used in report writing or business presentations.
Informal is used when you speak to or write emails to friends.
Vulgar is not the language of a smutty joke but is the language used when talking to a child or family pet.
Although not covered in this article, there is one other form. Frozen or static register is used in language that remains unchanged, particularly in printed or often repeated form. Examples include biblical quotations and oaths of allegiance.
For writers this is important to know, as register is a tool that can be used to develop style, especially in dialogue, to give characters a consistent voice.
Unlike many Latin languages, which have a dedicated formal and informal subject pronoun and verb conjugations, English uses a far more complex array of vocabulary and grammar structures to govern register.
In French for instance, these two phrases that ask ‘how are you?’ clearly identify formality:
Vous allez bien?
Tu vas bien?
The first is formal and would be used with people who are not close friends, such as superiors, acquaintances and strangers.
The second is informal and is used with family, close friends and children.
In English however, we only have the one subject pronoun, which is ‘you’.
So how can register and formality be applied in English?
It is controlled by using three language points – grammar, vocabulary and punctuation.
The table below shows the key differences between basic formal and informal register.
Explanation of English register in writing.
Latin-based verbs are always one full word, whereas phrasal verbs are always a verb plus one or two participles. Most Anglo-Saxon verbs are recognisably very short.
If we take a few Latin-based verbs such as to receive, to purchase, to comprehend, to appreciate, to tolerate, to schedule, to consider, to approve and to accommodate, these would be replaced by to get, to buy, to get, to like, to put up with, to set up, to think about, to okay and to put up.
Common and uncommon words are often words such as linking words. While and, but and so are informal, while furthermore, however, and therefore are formal equivalents.
Other examples of common words are, ta for thank you, ta ta for goodbye and tummy for stomach.
This is defined as contraction and abbreviation both in writing and speaking.
While asap, memo and HQ are informal, as soon as possible, memorandum and headquarters are formal.
When speaking to a friend, one might say, ‘I wouldn’t’ve baked a cake if I’d known you weren’t coming.’
But if this phrase were used in speaking to your boss it would change to, ‘I would not have arranged the meeting if I had known you would not be available.’
Another example is that will is always used in full in formal register and always contracted in informal language. We will arrive as compared to we’ll arrive.
While the structures given in the table are self-explanatory, the ones that do need a little explanation are noun and verb phrases.
Simply put, it is using an object as the subject of a phrase, and not a subject pronoun or name.
Often this results in the passive voice. For instance:
Joe and Charles attended the meeting. Informal.
The meeting was attended by Joe and Charles. Formal.
The meeting was thought to have been a success. Formal.
Joe and Charles thought the meeting was a success. Informal.
The last important point is in constructing indirect questions.
Care should always be taken to ensure that only one question structure is used in the complete phrase, which always means structuring the second verb phrase in statement order.
What is your name? This is a direct question.
Could you please tell me what your name is? This is an indirect question.
Notice that the verb to be is at the end of the second phrase as the question was formed by the inversion of could and you in the first phrase, so the second clause is in statement order.
The ability to maintain consistent register is a tool all writers need to master, as it is a way to avoid long descriptive phrases of how a character says something, or worse, using adverbs to describe how a character speaks.
Register also allows a writer to maintain a consistent voice for characters and to give consistency to the narrative. All of this can be controlled by the correct use of register in English.
While there are some minor differences in register between United States and British English, the basic rules of maintaining register are consistent.