Primer: Language Registers

21 October 2012 | Last updated 21 April 2016

cash register


LANGUAGE registers — or choosing the appropriate language for the context. It’s a big problem for a learner of any language, but the problem is a bigger one for Asians more than most.

Language register is a big problem for Asian learners of English, and Chinese and Indians are the biggest sufferers, what with the strong pull of long history and the general properties of their languages.

Indeed, the Chinese tend to be in a rut about registers more than the general run of Asians because the Chinese language has more fixed and formalised forms of expressions than any other language.


Language register at a glance

A language register is a certain variety of a language that’s used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. Register denotes the choice of language (whether that be formal or informal) to help match a given situation. In short, register is about language variation.

Don’t confuse register with formal vs. informal language — that’s a different idea.

The problem here is that the word register is a linguistics term. Like nearly everything else in that perverse field, register has no generally agreed definition. It has variable meanings even with the linguistics field. Different linguists’ definitions often contradict each other.


The five usual language registers

Most linguistics and grammar textbooks usually give five registers.

In reality, there is a spectrum of registers rather than a discrete set of obviously distinct registers. In other words, there is a countless number of registers we could identify, each with fuzzy boundaries.

The one usually taught to people is the Joos model of registers (Martin Joos, The Five Clocks, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961):—

Static or ‘frozen’ register

This is a style of communication that rarely or never changes. It is frozen in time and content. Examples are the Lord’s Prayer, a bibliographic reference, and statutes (laws).

Formal register

This is used in formal settings. The language follows a commonly accepted format (usually impersonal and one-way). Examples are sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, speeches, legal judgments, and announcements.

Consultative register

This is the standard form of communication. Simply put, this is two-way communication. It is essentially formal yet not impersonal. It occurs between two or more people who aren’t otherwise friends or relatives.

Examples are dialogues between doctor and patient, superior and subordinate, lawyer and client, teacher and student, etc.

The truth is that linguists (i.e. those in the field of linguistics) have long been unable to properly define this ‘standard’ form of communication between human beings. In a sense that suggests the linguists are unable to recognise it. Of course, the difficulty in identifying is that the language here often overlaps (combines?) formal and casual/informal qualities.

Casual register

This is the informal language used by friends and peers, so that colloquialisms, slang and vulgarities are normal (or considered normal). In short, this is ‘group’ language — even ‘groupie’ language. Used by buddies, teammates, chats, emails, blogs, letters to friends, etc. This register is highly two-way — you must remember to ‘engage’ the other party in this register.

Intimate register

This is private communication and reserved for close family members or intimate people (such as lovers, spouses, siblings, parents, children, etc).

The main trouble with the Joos model (and similar other linguistic models of language variation) is the static nature of the classifications themselves. They cause people to regard the registers have fixed boundaries (but in fact, none). Plus they contribute nothing more than what any schoolboy could describe but in less pretentious language.


Moving and mixing registers

Gee-whizz, man! We all know formal, neutral and informal already! But what about the in-betweens?! Variations on a classic theme may be fun and cute, but not when you’re looking for answers!

BUT, there are two rules of thumb worth knowing:—

1. Only move up or down one register and no more

You can transition from one register to the next adjacent one without much risk of social or linguistic repercussions. But skipping one or more levels is usually considered socially inappropriate, maybe even offensive.

2. Only mix registers for special effect and impact

Once you have mastered the language of each register, you can mix registers and turn them on their heads for impact, but only if you’ve mastered them (but that’s another post).


Would you like a cup of coffee? (1) (Essentially formal)

Can I get you a coffee? (2) (Neutral)

Joe — coffee? (3) (Informal)

I was wondering if I might use your car. (4) (Formal)

Could I borrow your car? (5) (Neutral)

Lend me your car, will you? (6) (Informal)

Indeed, the six examples above could all be classified in any number of ways according to your favourite model of language variation. (I’m using formal, neutral and informal just for convenience here.)

The decision to use which question often depends on the scenario as well as the relationship you have with the other person. So it depends on the time and place, and the person you’re dealing with.

For instance, if your brother doesn’t want to lend you his car, then sentence 4 (I was wondering if I might use your car) may set the right tone to get his approval, but maybe not with 6 (Lend me your car, will you?). Your best buddy might be okay with 6 even if the car is brand new and special (or indeed any of those variations). Most will be happy with the general-purpose 5 (Could I borrow your car?).

In short, the quality of the sentence might be formal, neutral or informal, but the register depends on the scenario and the relationship.

informal learning

(via knowledgecommunities)

Workers learn using informal language, yet training investment is into formal language.

You can see from the above chart that there is a considerable discrepancy and mismatch in the way people use the actual language to learn things vs. the language register receiving the money for that learning.


The CJK syndrome

Earlier I said the Chinese have a bigger problem than most with knowing when to use formal, neutral and informal English.

Part of the picture is that English-language learning in China (including Japan and South Korea) are extraordinarily locked into textbooks. The overriding reason for this is there is deep and widespread lack of English use at all levels of society there.

The other part of the picture is the actual problem — a problem of attitude. The problem stems from their throwing themselves completely into the formalised language of their textbooks. It results in thinking that that kind of English is the only English to be had.

Those who have great experience with CJK people can attest to their replying suddenly in formal sentences. This is the kind of stuff that can cause misunderstandings and resentment. I usually make huge allowances for most things and it doesn’t bother me (because I understand). But not many are like me.


Life is a two-way communication, and books are only one-way.

Do well to appreciate this fact.

© Learn English or Starve, 21 Oct 2011. Last updated 21 Apr 2016.

Images: Cash register via kollewin | How workers learn adapted via Knowledge Communities.

Cite this page as:—

Lee, R.C. (2011). Primer: Language Registers. Learn English or Starve [website]. 21 Oct 2011. Last updated 21 Apr 2016.

First published 21 Oct 2011.
Updated 15 Aug 2015.
Updated 21 Apr 2016 (reformatting only).

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